The “ism” in the new Tame Impala album, Lonerism seems to indicate a religious ideology more than a political one. There is a persistent devotion in Kevin Parker’s songs that turns the heavy-lidded repetition at the sonic core into a psychedelic mantra. The new album begins with an energetic, looped whisper: “Gotta be above it”. The song, “Be Above It”, has few lyrics beyond that continual assurance. Parker, the mastermind behind the Australian psychedelic group, always seems to be navel-gazing, analyzing life from the frame, in a hazy separation from the world. And though on the band’s catchy and timeless sounding debut album, Innerspeaker, Parker mentioned relationships (girls and friends), the lyrics were usually still solipsistic. In Tame Impala’s world, the rock lyricist is literally an inner speaker, delivering internal affirmations, comments, and prayers.
On Lonerism, Parker continues the interior monologue of an awkward youth. But the music belies that alienation, swaddling you in warmth. Tame Impala sound like sun shimmering on the minute ripples of a lake in full summer at noon. There’s a dazed quality of excessive light. Even though the dripping guitar plays minor progressions with a certain melancholy and Parker sings with a longing weariness, the overwhelming attitude might be more aptly awestruck. Inevitably, Parker’s voice calls to mind George Harrison. Like George, he is on a spiritual quest, one that is completely within. This lonerism is fitting for a generation of individuals who record and listen to music on computers, home alone, or on planes and trains, just as Parker was when he recorded this album in the immediate wake of Innerspeaker’s success.
For their second album, Tame Impala haven’t really grown in their sound. Sure, Lonerism boasts more synths than their debut, which adds another layer to the already thick-bottomed haze surrounding the band. At moments, the synths might call to mind ‘70s prog-rock in their sonic quality, but they never go into any complexity. The closest the band comes to prog is on the single, “Elephant”, which stomps in the direction of Zeppelin and Sabbath, with an additional wash of synth for a solo. But the busiest part of the song is the bass. No complex time signatures or key changes. And still the song is mid-tempo, like the rest of the album, shaking the earth like its titular animal, no rush.
There are a few other adventurous tracks that are brimful of thick and lively sound, like the second and third tracks, “Apocalypse Dreams” and the misleadingly named “Endors-Toi”. On the latter, after nearly two minutes of heavenly build — with guitar chords ringing out, a bombardment of shuffled drums, and rippling synths topping out the dense layering — Parker reminds himself, “Go to sleep, you’ll be fine”, as if talking himself down from a bad trip. Despite its sleepy title, it is a raucous song, one of the highlights of the album, especially in the raw corrosion of the guitar solo that takes the song out.
The early tracks are dominated by the busy, incredible drumming of Parker’s musical partner, Jay Watson. But post-“Apocalypse Dreams”, which swells with a winning paranoia like the sleep of a bad trip, Tame Impala take a slow dive into more laidback grooves. “Mind Mischief” has a punchy staccato riff, and a singsong quality: the cheerful discovery, Parker sings, is that “she remembers my name.” In fact, just the titles of the album’s songs seem to tell the story of going to a party, falling in love, getting too high, and having to go home early, alone, trapped within your head: “Music to Walk Home By”, “Why Won’t They talk To Me?’ all the way to “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” (which features a spoken part of someone comforting another person who has gone outside alone and needs to come back in to the party) and the final-piano-plunker-come-guitar-atmospherics, “Sun’s Coming Up”.
Despite the seeming lack of self-confidence that a name like Lonerism implies, Tame Impala have an evident certainty in its songs. Though the band could be seen as the inheritor of a certain strand of shoegazing — namely Ride’s later excursion into ‘60s psychedelia (Carnival of Light), and that genre gained its name from a perceived shyness that Parkers seems to share, Tame Impala always go for broke. The band purveys a composite style that is clear homage, a work of love, not purely nostalgia trip, but a rejuvenation of an old sound. Simply put, it takes balls to sing like George Harrison and to quote riffs by Hendrix.
Lonerism takes more time to unfold than Innerspeaker. You won’t find yourself singing along in the same way: Rather than memorable choruses, these mantras come to you in off moments, as reassurance. The vocals, already dreamy, fade into the songs, but the essence seems purer. The ritual works. Lonerism takes you out of yourself, yet somehow deep within yourself, to lay a bedrock of familiar and warming sounds. The melodies are slyly infectious, where the lyrical reflections blend into pure sounds and particular words seem not to matter. Maybe the insight Parker seeks is not lyrical so much as musical. With your headphones on, Lonerism tells you you’re not alone. It imparts that expansive happiness of catchy songs just at the margins of your memory, not quite in your grasp, a reminder of the pleasure of music, something beyond yourself.