Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

Kevin Parker greets the new decade with another reluctantly maximal masterwork

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The importance of making transient moments count was already a recurring theme in Tame Impala’s music before Kevin Parker experienced a rather dramatic reminder two years ago. At the beginning of a week-long recording session in a rented apartment in Malibu in November 2018, he was forced to flee as wildfires swept through the area, leaving him just enough time to grab a laptop full of mixes and his beloved Hofner bass and leave before tens of thousands of dollars of equipment went up in smoke.

Parker has taken pains not to compare his relatively modest brush with disaster with the far graver examples of loss and devastation experienced by so many others due to the fires in California, or back home in Australia; but the incident nevertheless puts the combination of mutability and urgency in his work into sharper relief.

Woozily gorgeous, often enthralling and sometimes surprising, The Slow Rush, then, marks a further creative departure even if it contains the most fundamental components of the sound Parker began developing as a lonely teenager in the garage of his family home in Perth 13 years ago; the multi-tracked vocals full of yearning, the wistful melodies precariously positioned on top of layers upon effects-slathered layers of sounds and instruments, and the grooves that feel both casual and muscular. They’re all present on Tame Impala’s first album in the almost five years since Currents transformed Parker’s one-man studio project and its burlier live incarnation into the kind of Spotify-dominating, arena-filling crossover phenomenon that rock music is supposedly too decrepit to produce any more.

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Yet so much else about Tame Impala remains in a seemingly permanent state of flux, reflecting a theme that’s recurred in his lyrics time and again. “Everything is changing, and there’s nothing I can do,” Parker crooned in his best Lennon falsetto on “Apocalypse Dreams” from 2012’s Lonerism, the album that first signalled how Parker was willing to venture beyond the playbook of 21st-century psych pastiche he’d borrowed from Dungen and other early inspirations.

By the time of “Yes, I’m Changing” on 2015’s Currents, his tone was less anxious. “Yes, I’m changing, yes, I’m gone/Yes, I’m older, yes, I’m moving on,” he sang, before layers of crystalline synths culminated in Tame Impala’s most beatific passage of music to date. The rest of Currents saw him easing up and moving on in many other ways, too: though he didn’t entirely abandon the Beatlesque songcraft and Hendrixian flamboyance that made Lonerism and 2010’s Innerspeaker so remarkable, his new music brandished a textural and rhythmic sensibility more akin to contemporary R&B and hip-hop, such that it wasn’t so surprising for his spacier, funkier sounds to find favour with Rihanna and Kanye West.

The first of three singles to arrive in the year leading up to the release of The Slow Rush, “Patience” was another chance for Parker to caution himself and others against expecting anything other than yet more flux. “I’m just growin’ up in stages, living life in phases,” he sang gently, evincing a whole-hearted acceptance of the matter. “Another season changes/And still my ways are aimless, I know.”

Parker’s being unduly hard on himself in that last line, which is perfectly in keeping with his perfectionist reputation. There’s no disputing his doggedness upon hearing an album whose formidable degree of detail and texture could only be the product of innumerable days and nights of toil and tinkering. And while it can sound like he did spend the last four years alone in a dimly lit room full of effects pedals and pot smoke, Parker did make time for other activities, like showing off Tame Impala’s array of lasers and confetti cannons during 2018’s many tour dates, and getting married last February.

But for all his labours, Tame Impala very much remains a work in progress, and therefore a reflection of a creator with a keen appreciation for the sort of uncertainty that many other artists just can’t tolerate. The Slow Rush is also an oddly amorphous record, as if it too were not quite finished with its own process of evolution. That’s not to its detriment, however, partially because Tame Impala’s fundamental haziness has long been one of the most compelling things about the band. Like Kevin Shields, Parker loves little more in this world than a reverse reverb effect, but he’s similarly always been very exacting about his brand of blurriness.

What’s more, the slippery nature of the best songs on The Slow Rush and their many changes in direction mean Parker’s able to simultaneously confirm and confound the diverse array of expectations that have developed since Currents. Though the bright melodies and high polish of “Patience” and “Breathe Deeper” mean they could be heard as commercial-minded continuations of his collaborations with Mark Ronson, their forms are also too elastic for them to function as straightforward pop songs. While the more beat-forward likes of “Tomorrow’s Dust”, “Lost In Yesterday” and unabashedly Daft Punk-y “Is It True” point to Parker’s growing affinity for dance music and forays into the genre in his collaborations with Avalanches, Zhu and Theophilus London, they’re also too steeped in dreamy languor and minor-key melancholy to conquer the clubs.

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Likewise, the soft-rock/prog-pop grandeur of “Borderline” and “On Track” may evoke 10cc, Wings and Supertramp at their most sumptuous, but this too is something of a red herring – there are still enough messier moments scattered throughout the album to partially appease listeners who keep hoping Parker’s continuing partnership with Pond will prompt a return to Tame Impala’s first psych principles.

The Slow Rush, it seems, has a little something for everyone in Tame Impala’s increasingly varied constituency. It’s also at its most compelling when several of those somethings are happening at once. One case in point is “Posthumous Forgiveness”, which has no little poignancy due to the complex welter of emotions Parker expresses for his late father (“you could store an ocean in the holes/In any of the explanations you gave”) but feels curiously drab until it’s overwhelmed mid-song by the blurting and blaring of Parker’s barrage of synths. There’s a similarly clamorous development complicating the pristine Supertramp-y pop of “It Might Be Time”, one of many songs here that reminds listeners “nothing lasts forever” in case they thought they had a shot at staying young forever. Another highpoint here, the burbling “Breathe Deeper” is propelled by Frankie Knuckles-style piano figures, stuffed with swirling synths and topped with Parker’s most exuberant vocal performance – “if you need someone to tell you’re special, I can, believe me” is the kind of sweet nothing you’d hope to hear from a newlywed. It builds into a rapturous piece of shoegaze-funk as heady as the Andrew Weatherall mix of My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon”.

By contrast, the songs that don’t boast those sudden swerves or vertigo-inducing rises – such as “Instant Delivery”, a three-minute recap of Currents highlights, or “Glimmer”, a fleeting exercise in Laurent Garnier-style house – can feel more like Parker on cruise control as he waits for the next bolt of inspiration. Other songs struggle to fully emerge from The Slow Rush’s constant whorls of activity, a persistent though usually forgivable issue with Tame Impala’s maximalist approach. As ardently as Parker may believe in the fact of flux, he also understands that when it comes to Tame Impala, more is nearly always more. And in spite of the additional pressures fostered by the success of Currents, he has risen to the occasion with an album full of the necessary girth and scope, which doesn’t succumb to the forces of inertia. Instead, Parker remains eager to take songs in directions that clearly leave him as surprised as anyone else.

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