Retrospective Album Review: Tame Impala swells to new heights on ‘Currents’

The project’s junior release saw Kevin Parker innovate their core rock sound to create one of the best pop records of the Millenium.

At the start of the last decade, Tame Impala’s mastermind Kevin Parker was high on psychedelic mushrooms and cocaine, a passenger speeding through the streets of LA. Celebrating the end of a long tour, a classic song reinvigorated him: the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive.” “It moved me, and that’s what I always want out of psych music. I want it to transport me.”[1]From Parker’s interview with the Guardian.

Just over a decade ago, Australian musician Kevin Parker quickly broke into the international rock scene on the back of his musical project Tame Impala. Their debut record, Innerspeaker, instantly gained traction with the public and critics alike in 2010, with the follow-up Lonerism only lifting their rising star status in 2012. Their brash guitar riffs coupled with rippled, wavy production garnered a traditional indie rock fanbase that boosted them to critical success.

While ‘Lonerism’ was the darling album of rockers in the early 2010s, Tame Impala’s third release, Currents, veered sharply towards the sound of synthpop. This wasn’t totally unexpected, even though it caught some fans off guard. Parker had boasted openly about never putting on a Pink Floyd record in his life and his love of Britney Spears, a blasphemous confession to their vinyl clutching die-hards. But instead of trying to appease the snobs, he told Spin regarding the writing process, “[my] only rule was to make an attempt to abandon the rules that I’ve set up in the past.”[2]From Parker’s interview with Spin Magazine. Letting go of preconceptions from his childhood, Parker allowed himself to explore the sounds of pop music without inhibition.

He did his research well, turning to Fleetwood Mac’s work to create a cohesive sound palette for the album.[3]From a detailed account of the creation of ‘Currents’. As a result of this new direction, Parker largely exchanged the sound of guitars for loopy 80s synthesizers. However, they are still integral to the album’s sound, whether driving songs like “Disciples” or texturing them on “The Moment.” The songwriting structure throughout Currents is clearly pop-influenced, but Parker leaves a perfect amount of roughness around the edges to maintain suspense, like the phone-call-storytelling in “Past Life” that ends with a single word: “Hello?”

‘Currents’ doesn’t just represent a thematic statement, but also a sonic one. Like any psychedelic album, the sound of the record is characterized by the sound panning from one side to another, intense reverb effects, and wavey, dynamic synth lines. Both sonically and lyrically, it clearly meets the three pillars of the LSD experience as described by Hicks: dechronicization (loss of sense of time), depersonalization (loss of sense of self), and dynamization (familiar structures warp and bend). These three characterizations are found both within the album as a whole and within each song’s musical and lyrical composition. This masterful blending of both sonic and thematic work makes Currents a damn near perfect psychedelic experience. [4]While Parker has not mentioned the use of LSD in producing the album, he has confirmed that he used psychedelic mushrooms during the creative process, and that influence is imbued in the record. Parker’s breaking of self-imposed genre limitations creates a sound that is uniquely blended and in line with the psychedelic wisdom that the world is more interconnected than one might think otherwise.

Concurrently, Parker’s experimentation with the pop form sees him quickly build on it, rejecting notions of needing singles to stand on their own and instead weave all of the songs tightly into the album’s narrative. In Parker’s words, the story of the album is one of a “deep feeling of transition” in the psyche. This cerebral description of the album pans out in the tracklist, as Parker leads his audience through all of the hard-hitting emotions that come from a life transition: guilt, heartbreak, love, and courage. Each song flows smoothly into the other, with nothing but the tracklist and titles alone making this clear: the album’s journey begins with a single sentiment – “Let it Happen” – and ends with Parker becoming a “New Person.” Who emerges from the lessons of his “Past Life”? “Disciples.” And when he overhears “Gossip,” he quips, “The Less I Know the Better.” The story told is so clear that one doesn’t even need to listen to the album to understand it.

Kicking off with the seven-and-a-half minute epic “Let It Happen,” Parker makes it known that he wants his audience to be invested in the experience of the album as a whole and not just its components. It’s almost a trial as to who is willing to succumb to his vision. In the bridge, a full minute and a half is just a single snippet on loop, again, almost as a test for the audience. Instead of fighting to rationalize the music, one needs to relax and accept it. Even the aforementioned hit “The Less I Know the Better” is indelibly connected to its 55-second instrumental intro “Gossip,” signaling Parker’s intent to have the album and not individual songs be the center of attention.

Of course, with all Pop albums, there are juggernaut tracks that take on a life of their own. For Currents, that’s almost inarguably “The Less I Know The Better,” one of the most beloved tracks of the last decade (and deservedly so). No song on the album better represents the shift from Tame Impala’s previous work, with its Disco stride echoing the aforementioned transportive quality of the Bee Gees rather than Led Zepplin. Parker has joked about it not belonging on the record because of its “dorky, white disco funk,” but that’s precisely what’s to love about it; Parker’s desperation for love tearing his walls down, revealing that somewhat awkward but paradoxically cool interior.

While Currents is Tame Impala’s first foray into synthpop, Parker’s balls-to-the-wall commitment to every idea on the album produces astonishing results at every turn. The pop tunes are just as sharp as the rock ones, and the more experimental tracks never stumble. “Cause I’m A Man” could easily pass for a Motown classic with its swaggering, heavy chorus, if not for its self-aware commentary on sexism. Its R&B-leaning sound represents yet another successful reinvention of the band’s sonic formula, and when one is listening to the full album, it keeps the listener guessing.

Ultimately, Currents represented a commercial breakthrough for the project, becoming their first Top 5 entry on the Billboard 200 and first chart-topper in their native Australia. The album was a sleeper success across the world, with steady streams from young fans propelling the project to their first Platinum American record and over a billion streams on Spotify streams to date. The standout single “The Less I Know the Better” is certified 2x Platinum despite never cracking the Hot 100 or the Spotify Global 100, courtesy of its high playlist placement at every college party imaginable in the second half of the 2010s.

It’s this particular sort of commercial success that has created a near-perfect musical legacy; loved by the masses but still cool enough for indie cred. Currents not only kept the old Tame Impala fans who loved rock music but successfully brought new electronic and pop fans into the fold, among others. Currents struck a universal chord with music fans across the globe, a massive victory for the psychedelic genre whose goal is often to bring people from across the spectrum together.

While Tame Impala and Currents are still more regarded as rock than pop, the shockwaves that Parker sent across that industry are still reverberating. Rihanna infamously closed 2016’s ANTi with a cover of Currents’ finale song “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” That same year, Parker produced Lady Gaga’s lead single, “Perfect Illusion.” The years since have also seen Parker work with adored acts such as SZA, Travis Scott, and Kanye West. Taylor York of Paramore even joked that the group was trying to rip off Tame Impala on their 2017 LP After Laughter. [5]From Paramore’s Apple Music interview. Tame Impala has become not only revered by critics and music fans but by musicians within the industry itself and pushed the sound of pop in new directions.

Can one of the most revered rock albums of the last decade simultaneously be considered a Pop classic? It can, and it should.

References

1 From Parker’s interview with the Guardian.
2 From Parker’s interview with Spin Magazine.
3 From a detailed account of the creation of ‘Currents’.
4 While Parker has not mentioned the use of LSD in producing the album, he has confirmed that he used psychedelic mushrooms during the creative process, and that influence is imbued in the record.
5 From Paramore’s Apple Music interview.

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