“It’s always around me, all this noise,” are the first words we hear from Kevin Parker on the latest Tame Impala record, Currents. The band’s previous effort, 2012’s Lonerism, was a Beatles-esque washed-out rock throwback that launched the Perth five-piece to crossover success. Elephant and Feels Like We Only Go Backwards were inescapable hits that scored the band a Grammy nomination and a platinum plaque for their second album, and it is with high anticipation that bandleader Parker returns with his latest suite of psychedelic modern rock anthems.
From the get-go, Currents is a shock. Here, Parker is in an altogether different mindset than that which was discernible through the withdrawn stoner daze of Lonerism. Though his voice is as John Lennon-ish as ever, the musical backdrop of Parker’s latest songs switch up ’60s psychedelic tropes for ’70s and ’80s disco, funk, and electronic touchstones. Of this change’s genesis, Parker told the Guardian:
"I was in LA a few years ago and for some reason we’d taken mushrooms, it must have been the end of our tour. I was coked up as well, and a friend was driving us around LA in this old sedan. He was playing the Bee Gees and it had the most profound emotional effect. The beat felt overwhelmingly strong and, at that moment, it sounded pretty psychedelic. It moved me, and that’s what I always want out of psych music. I want it to transport me.”
While Parker is far from the first - and nor will he be the last - young musician to play up the withdrawn, druggy, modern beatnik mystique, he is perhaps unique in ability when set alongside his peers. Parker outstrips his stereotypical posturing and emerges from the smoke-filled haze of his life experience with fantastically well-written, finely recorded music.
Employing a wider range of instrumentation, including vintage synthesisers and an expanded string section, Currents is a heady foray into popular music from a rare young talent. Parker pushes his wide vocal range and trademark falsetto to their limits, invariably recalling the Bee Gee tunes he has been so influenced by. At all times there is a strained, love-worn Lennon timbre to his voice which cannot help but be pleasing to the ear, and the lyrical themes of Currents almost uniformly deal with heartache and the navigating of complex love-games.
“Like the brutal autumn sun/ It dawns on me, what have I done?/Saying sorry ain’t as good as saying why/ But it buys me a little more time,” he sings on the single 'Cause I’m a Man. Hard-toothed kick drums, crisp hi-hats, complex midrange basslines, fuzzy guitar leads, and washy synthesisers form the backbone of most of the tracks on Currents, and they’re all in play on Cause I’m a Man. Pushing his considerable range to hit a C#5, Parker bemoans relationship failures before callously rejecting all responsibility in the chorus: “'Cause I’m a man, woman/ Don’t always think before I do/ ‘Cause I’m a man, woman/ That’s the only answer I’ve got for you.”
Lead single Let It Happen is one of the finest songs Parker has written to date. Carried by a nervously propulsive rhythm, soaring synth chords, a tick-tock drumbeat, and stormy orchestrations, Let It Happen sounds like the lovechild of Stayin’ Alive and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. Parker’s gift for an unlikely hook is in full force here, weaving instantly memorable melodies into eight minutes of exploratory disco rock. It is an insistently exciting song, and a terrific opening statement for Currents. Parker’s stylistic reawakening is immediately clear.
Midway through Let It Happen, during an extended bridge section, Parker deftly employs the same record-skipping technique he so successfully used on Lonerism standout Feels Like We Only Go Backwards. Parker explained the technique’s resurgence during an illuminating interview with Rolling Stone:
“I love that kind of thing. Going back to the album art, it’s that organic realm that’s been fucked with in a digital way that tricks the mind. For me it’s about finding some way to alter your sense of what you’re listening to and alter your sense of which way is up and down. Whatever you can do to make people feel woozy or not just standing on the ground, that’s what psychedelia has always been about for me. All the stigmas and clichés aside, it’s really just about transporting people, even for just an instant.”
Nangs and Gossip are short electronic experimentations that serve mostly to exemplify Parker’s studio wizardry. When recording, the frontman performs vocals, guitar, drums, bass, piano, and synthesiser, while also writing, recording, and producing most everything himself. Here, Parker returns with enhanced musicianship and increased confidence, as his constantly-changing bass riffs and intimate arrangements show. As with Lonerism, Currents was recorded in Parker’s home studio in Fremantle, Australia. He has the reputation of being an obsessive studio perfectionist, and these tracks smack of Parker’s finely-tuned attention to detail.
Along with the aforementioned singles, album standouts include the introspective ’80s electro pop ballad Yes I’m Changing, nostalgic singalong anthem Eventually, and uptempo freak out The Moment. The latter track ends with a head-spinning phaser effect that pans left to right and eventually takes over the entire song, cutting off just as it spirals dizzyingly into chaos.
There is currently a subculture teeming with slacker alternative rock songwriters, most of whom draw from the decorated ’60s with varying degrees of success. Currents should be seen as a beacon of hope for such a group of young musicians; Parker has led Tame Impala into a more accessible, mature, and unique realm through broadening his sonic palette and embracing genres, instruments, and techniques often overlooked by the too-cool-to-care crowd.
Yet Currents is overlong, as all Tame Impala albums have been, each totaling over 50 minutes. Leaving some of these tracks on the cutting room floor would have been wise; Disciples is an unnecessary repetition of themes already more successfully employed on other tracks, while the closing duo Love/Paranoia and New Person, Same Old Mistakes unfortunately lack the intensity and infectious euphoria of the album’s highlights.
Currents' creative nadir, however, appears in the form of the cringe-worthy, pretentious overindulgence Past Life. Unsuccessfully melding progressive rock with disco, Past Life is unique amongst the mostly fantastic tracks that comprise Currents; it is here that Parker’s druggy experimentation wears thin, as in a pitched-down voice he speaks with a thick Australian accent and recounts acid-flashback apparitions of a former girlfriend. The spoken word verses are interspersed with monotonously droning, effect-laden choruses, and the instrumental is comprised of clichéd, twee ’80s electro approximations. Past Life is the sort of misstep that - after the initial full-length play-through - is destined to be skipped by most listeners in favour of the rest of Currents.
This record is a brave gamble from Parker, who must surely be aware of the legions of Lonerism fans who have not shared in his disco-as-psychedelia rebirth, and who do not usually listen to this sort of music. Alienating albums like these don’t usually work, and as we saw on Daft Punk’s overwrought Random Access Memories, disco remains an elusively difficult genre to successfully draw from. Recapturing the magic of classic ’70s disco has only on occasion been achieved by a modern rock act.
To his credit, on Currents Parker launches headfirst into the challenge, and he is largely successful. He has a natural gift for composing woozy, catchy music that pays homage to decades-old traditions while somehow managing to be of-the-moment and relevant. There is a spirited sense of joy and passion behind most of these tracks, and when Parker plays to both his gifts as a rock songwriter and as a diverse studio experimentalist, the results are superb.
With a voice preternaturally suited to tackling a wide array of styles and the work ethic, know-how, and means to craft dense, richly textured records, Kevin Parker is an exciting prospect in modern alternative music. Currents is his band’s best work yet; it remains to be seen if through editorial excess-trimming Parker can in future fashion a suite of songs that are as uniformly brilliant as his best work. For now, Currents is masterful sunny day psychedelia, dressed to the nines in a sparkling white suit and ready as ever for misadventure.
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