Released: July 17th, 2015
Reviewed by Thomas Johnstone
“I heard about a whirlwind that’s coming ’round / It’s gonna carry off all that isn’t bound,” Kevin Parker announces on “Let It Happen,” opening track of Australian act Tame Impala‘s new record Currents. The lyric forecasts the album’s theme of personal change, from its distant rumblings to its disaffecting aftermath, and given the apocalyptic imagery, we’d hardly expect the changes to be slight.
Fittingly Currents delivers by departing from the act’s previous work in big, surprising ways, given the expectations we might have following two acclaimed albums which comfortably wear the label “psychedelic rock.” Despite possessing a keen sense of melody and lyrical maturity, Kevin Parker—the sole recording and producing musician of Tame Impala (he mixes this time around, as well)—has always seemed less of a songwriter than a clever studio craftsman. A typical track obscured his Lennon-like vocals behind snaking bass lines and 70’s guitar riffs, forming mantra-like jams awash in bombastic drums and reverb. The closing track of 2012’s Lonerism, “Sun’s Coming Up,” seemed to lay the Tame Impala formula bare. A sad carnival waltz for voice and piano, shockingly bare and traditional given everything it follows, eventually turns to full-blown noise collage à la “Revolution 9.” With this self-deconstruction Parker seemed to be both copping to his Beatles influence in the most blatant way, and acknowledging his art’s competing elements: the traditional song, and the abstract, chaotic sound world of an expanded mind.
With Currents, the song finally gets its day in the sun. This is largely an album of pop songs, and Tame Impala’s familiar elliptical jams are kept to a minimum. The main exception is “Let It Happen,” which tries several styles on for size over the course of its nearly eight minute fantasia: dance pop with vocoder, gnarly guitar riffs and even a diversion into synth-orchestra territory that recalls Mercury Rev. It’s like Parker preempted the DJs by remixing the track himself.
As the album progresses it’s clear such meandering is the exception rather than the rule, perhaps by design, as this opening track eases the transition to more traditional territory. Traditional, at least, in the abundance of well-structured songs like “The Moment.” It’s a testament to Parker’s songwriting chops (a few clunky rhymes aside, it feels like he’s been doing this all along) that a listener is more likely to fixate on the newly electronic texture. Keyboards dominate, with guitars mostly relegated to short, funky riffs as on “The Less I Know the Better,” a smirking love song which could easily fit on Daft Punk‘s Random Access Memories. Drums are more danceable and reigned-in (you won’t even hear a crash cymbal until track 5) and vocals no longer feel like an afterthought; Parker’s sweet tenor sits front and center, his double-tracked Lennon pretensions of the past nowhere in sight. Not that he’s entirely abandoned psychedelia, evidenced by a dramatic vocal delay in “Reality In Motion” or the blurry pads of studio scrap “Nangs,” but the effects enhance as much as they obscure. Parker balances the rhythms and textures of his electronic soundscape with surprising ease, resembling Caribou much more than the Beatles. In fact, he slips so comfortably into his new skin it feels like splitting hairs to complain that the album feels merely expert, rather than groundbreaking.
Assured as Parker’s technical skills may be, the heart of the album is a narrative arc shining a light on individual growth. “The Moment” confronts a now-or-never fork in the road, while “Yes I’m Changing” reconciles the choice to move ahead with the pain of what’s left behind. Closing track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” contemplates change as illusory and temporary, skeptically suggesting Currents‘ arc is not a timeline, but a closed loop: skip back to “Let It Happen” and repeat, ad infinitum.
Currents answers Tame Impala’s rising profile with a daring change of direction, and that move has already earned comparisons to Kid A and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Excellent as the record is, the comparison is a bit generous—Currents doesn’t reach the heights of those seminal albums, and Parker’s boldness is of a safer variety. Whereas Radiohead and Wilco showed a willingness to lean into abstraction that bordered on perverse, Tame Impala does the opposite by embracing pop songwriting, and comes out all the more listenable for it.
“They say people never change, but that’s bullshit,” Parker confides on “Yes I’m Changing,” and Currents gives every reason to agree. Parker embraces change so successfully, we might assume he isn’t finished—Currents may be a mere pit stop on the way to Tame Impala‘s yet-to-come masterpiece, but it’s a trip well worth enjoying on its own.