Tame Impala – Currents
According to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, the origins of Current are encapsulated in a scene that’s as retro as his band’s first two albums. In celebration of the end of the Lonerism tour, he and some friends were driving around L.A. in the twilight, done up on cocaine and mushrooms; the stereo was playing loud, and when the Bee Gees came on Parker came to the sudden realization that the disco-pop legends – Australians like him – were actually really, really good. Following this revelation, Parker holed up in his home studio in Melbourne, chasing a sound that was an amalgamation between his previous work and a sound that could fill dance floors and get played for everyone, not just indie-psychedelic nerds.
If this is a rather off-putting idea, it’s only because long decades of artists seeking crossover appeal has left a bad taste in people’s mouths. The number of groups that have tried to win legions of fans by crafting their music with an eye to the dancefloor are many; the number who have succeeded from an artistic standpoint are far fewer. For every David Bowie circa Let’s Dance there are a hundred groups like KISS circa “I Was Made For Loving You”. When Mumford & Sons ditched the banjos in favour of big radio pop sounds people scoffed; when Daft Punk went neo-disco it caused a schism in their fanbase that was never repaired. It’s a risky venture, especially when you are known for a particular style that has a rich and lengthy history, and that style comes with a fanbase known for being particularly pedantic when it comes to sound and result. Psychedelic fans are picky, to be blunt, and Tame Impala makes a number of the more hardcore fans suspicious. “Baby’s first psych” is thrown around a lot. So when the words “Tame Impala influenced by disco sounds” floats across my eyeballs, I get a little worried about things like direction, and legacy, and flame wars.
As it turns out, what Parker really means with regards to the whole “disco” thing is that he decided to focus less on guitar work and more on synthesizers, smooth production, and a certain songwriting aesthetic that sits perfectly between the poppier moments of 1970s-era prog rock and modern synth-rock crossovers like Passion Pit. Parker brings the big synth bass and gossamer synths of a band like Passion Pit, but ditches the dross and slick three-minute pop confections in favour of relentless studio perfectionism, deeply intricate instrumental sections, and an attention to atmosphere rather than building everything around a riff-heavy groove. This is not the lysergic Lennon channeling of Innerspeaker, or the lurching sun-worship of Lonerism. Think ELO with a better studio, and a better-developed sense of their own decade. This is psychedelic disco-prog, and if that sounds bizarre to you, it should; on paper, it might not work, but Parker is not the average songwriter, and in his hands it comes into its own glorious vitality like an orchid blooming in the night.
That’s not to say that there aren’t riffs here: “Let It Happen” and “The Less I Know The Better” ride gnarled guitar lines and layer buttery-smooth vocals and built-up synths on top of them. It’s just that those aren’t the only thing going anymore, and the band works much better for it. “Past Life” is especially fascinating: beginning with a synth arpeggio straight out of an early 1980s soundtrack, it welds a deep hip-hop influenced beat underneath and mixes spoken word effects with Parker’s vocals, like M83 without the Hughesian urge behind it. “‘Cause I’m A Man”, perhaps the strongest of the singles that preceded the album, remains a centerpiece on the totality of Currents; of all of the songs presented here, it’s the one that betrays Parker’s update from the 1960s to the 1970s the most. It’s AM pop gold, slathered in synth work and filtered guitar work until it becomes both perfectly retro and utterly modern.
Tame Impala get ambitious on Currents, and they aim for a lot of sounds. What it really sounds like, though, is sitting in the passenger seat of a car, loaded up on psychedelics, not a care in the world, and realizing that the Bee Gees might have been the best band ever.