Australia’s Tame Impala, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist/producer Kevin Parker, has made a name for itself by synthesizing new, original sounds from the bones of old ones. Influenced heavily by the experimental sounds of the Sixties, Parker has slowly shied away from over-reliance on guitars, eschewing traditional rock and roll arrangements for spacy analog synthesizers and drum machines. The band made it on an international scale after being nominated for a Grammy for their second album, Lonerism, which moved away from the experimental tones of their debut, InnerSpeaker, toward sunnier pop melodies and structures. In the three year interim since Lonerism, Parker has reassessed his approach and once again redefined his signature sound – if that album was largely a modern distillation of Sixties acid and psych rock, his new record, Currents, is a love letter to Seventies dance and Eighties new wave balladry.
That being said, if you hear that and you’re coming in expecting disco high hat beats or chorus pedals, you’re going to be disappointed; Parker tends to play his cards close to his chest, in that the majority of the album lacks directly traceable lineage to any of its inspirations. It’s very difficult to point to artists, past or present, that are really comparable to what Tame Impala is doing. In a subtle shift from Lonerism, Currents is almost entirely electronic, and any guitars on the album (not that I’m entirely sure there are any) have been so processed and distorted that they’re nigh unrecognizable. Chord progressions are largely signaled by warm, woozy pad synth, while the melodies are dually handled by Parker’s smooth John Lennon-esque falsetto and driving, wiry basslines.
Parker doesn’t abandon all of his psychedelic rock tendencies, though, and that hallmark of confident self-indulgence is actually one of the album’s strongest qualities. Songs typically take their time to unfold, routinely passing the four minute mark. Record opener “Let It Happen” ambles for a leisurely 7:48, repeating its central chord progression like a mantra until it drops into a clipped, one-bar sample that jerkily loops like a scratched CD. Just as you think the track is about to end, bass creeps in and breathes new life into it. It’s a brilliant moment and the kind of move you’d expect from an album-closing opus, but Parker positions it in the leadoff slot as a thesis statement for the direction of the following tracks.
Elsewhere on Currents, Parker plays with genres and styles that he has worked in on previous Tame Impala records. “The Less I Know The Better” and “Disciples” are both imbued with the same swagger that made “Elephant” a hit, and are the closest that Parker comes to straightforward rock on the album. The former features the best bassline I’ve heard in a rock song this year, while the latter is a lighthearted feel-good bopper that comes and goes in less than two minutes. Mid-album number “The Moment” cribs the shuffling beat and chiming synth of perennial new wave hit “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” but admirably plays it straight rather than devolving into a Tears For Fears style parody. In the home stretch, the notable “Love/Paranoia” is a darkly sultry slow jam, while “Reality In Motion” is a throwback to the squelchy psychedelia of earlier Tame Impala records. Finally, the sublime “‘Cause I’m A Man” takes its cues from “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” skirting into R&B territory as Parker smoothly tries, but fails, to justify why he’s such a fuck-up to a jilted lover.
In fact, much of the lyrical content of Currents revolves around the examination of masculinity, its fragility, and how it turns toxic. Parker, either as himself or a character, casts the narrator as the source of his own romantic failures, whether through neglect, indifference, or ineptitude. On “Eventually,” he breaks up with someone under the guise that he knows what her best interests are:
I know I always said that I could never hurt you
Well this is the very very last time I’m ever going to
But I know that I’ll be happier
And I know you will, too,
Bummer that she doesn’t get the immediate benefit of happiness, right? It’s really all about what he wants, no matter how he sugarcoats it. When she does find happiness with someone else (on “The Less I Know The Better”) his jealousy gets the better of him, as he moans “I was doing fine without ya / ‘til I saw your eyes turn away from mine.” “Past Life” depicts the narrator narrowly missing a run-in with an ex-lover, via a rambling, pitched down monologue that ends with him deciding to call her; the song abruptly cuts off as the phone rings and she answers.
By the end of the album, he’s trying to make right on his transgressions. In the aforementioned “‘Cause I’m A Man,” he laments his poor decision-making and wryly skewers the all-too-real trope of the man who doesn’t know when to let someone else talk:
But I have no voice if I don’t speak my mind
My weakness is the source of all my pride, I’ll tell you why
Cause I’m a man, woman
Don’t always think before I do
This kind of tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of masculinity is certainly nothing new, but it’s been in the forefront of my mind at least partially thanks to being prominently featured as subject matter for several high-profile indie albums this year, most notably My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall and Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. In fact, it’s easy to draw a lot of parallels between Currents and Honeybear in particular: both are maximalist, auteur-piloted records that work better as a cohesive whole and portray their narrators as broken, unlikable men. But where Honeybear left a bad taste in my mouth by reveling in its leading man being a piece of shit, Currents leans the other way – the narrator is, at times, really despicable, but always is aware and trying to do better despite himself. The fact that he often fails makes him piteous, and that human element of self-awareness, coupled with a unique and compelling sound, is what elevates Tame Impala’s latest effort as one of my favorite albums of the year to date.
Currents is available in stores, digitally, or through the band’s website.