If nothing else, Tame Impala’s third album Currents has revealed the continued existence of residual resentment toward disco among rock fans. Early responses to the record’s early danceable single “Let It Happen” were mixed, but a very vocal minority expressed their distaste for the band’s move away from tasteful psych-rock toward a more intrepid electro-funk bent. For the followers of a band that styled themselves after the Beatles and retro garage rock artists, the song represented shameless aspirations toward mass appeal pop with — the biggest sin of all for those who value the elusive “human touch” of rock — heavy electronic influence.
To be fair, the nearly eight-minute “Let It Happen” may have been a lot to swallow for traditional rock purists: swirling keyboards and a vocoder line steal melodic focus from the effects-draining guitars, the drums throb with the static pulse of electronic dance music, and the instrumentation all but dies away behind an EQ filter during the song’s ethereal refrain. Provocatively, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker even employs sample looping effects in the track’s lush instrumental section, trapping digital and analog sounds together in a disruptive, hiccupping loop for over a minute. “Let It Happen” ends with all these independent layers wonderfully and improbably united: dirty fuzz guitar, vocoder, and gaudy synth don’t battle for space but harmonize with one another as a lush, satisfying whole. It’s perhaps Tame Impala’s most interesting composition to date, yet many early fans who identified with the vintage whimsy of Innerspeaker and the robust guitar rock of Lonerism remained wholly unconvinced.
Later singles did nothing to assuage those concerns. “‘Cause I’m a Man”, released in early April, exacerbated fears with twinkling bells, synthetic drum sounds, and an infectious vocal melody that come dangerously close to the sounds of 1980s pop ballads. The minute-and-a-half “Disciples” dropped a few weeks later, its instrumentation clouded by lo-fi, heavily filtered production that approximates the mono sound of early garage rock, all before someone hits a switch and the music expands and modernizes in an instant with blustering compressed drums, creamy guitars and groaning bass. Parker’s studio tricks were naturally lost on the skeptics, but the “Disciples” gimmick was a confirmation of the same retro-to-contemporary shift used to great effect on “Let It Happen”. The last pre-release single, “Eventually”, landed somewhere between “‘Cause I’m a Man”’s pop gold and Lonerism’s hard-hitting psychedelia, suggesting that those fans hoping for a purer, rock-redeemed Currents tracklist were likely out of luck.
But Currents proper still retains the band’s sense for aesthetics, even through their unique musical evolution. Parker’s psychedelic sensibilities are more vivid than ever on album interludes like “Nangs” and “Gossip”, both brandished with the trippy, scuzzy synths of indie electronic artists like Neon Indian and Washed Out. The band’s penchant for bold guitar work is no less alive, either, with the dirty riff that closes out “Let It Happen” paving the way for the massive chords in “Eventually” and the fuzzy bass melody that guides “The Less I Know the Better”. One of the band’s previously most overlooked characteristics — their ambitious level of musical scope — is developed to an unparalleled extreme on Currents. Experimentation with impulsive diversions in song structure lend transformative energy to the entire record, but especially tracks like “Let It Happen”, “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, and “The Moment”, songs with otherwise conventional foundations expanded beyond traditional limitations through left-field interludes and spontaneous, evolutionary bridges.
That Parker’s music has changed is indisputable, but for as progressive an album this is for him and the band, it’s also remarkably well-developed. Currents is not a haphazard pairing but a seamless blend of Tame Impala’s familiar rock stylings and Parker’s new disco obsession. It’s a pure alliance of vintage and modern sounds, psychedelic and dance sensibilities. Parker’s seemingly disparate inspirations evolve together as dependent forces in his music. “Reality in Motion” acts as a spiritual successor to “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” with its full, fluid chord progression, but it achieves it with swimming synth lines and, instead of the dry funk of the latter song’s drums, a buoyant dance beat that pairs well with the wavy melodies. Parker’s floaty vocals on the searingly psychedelic, phaser-rich “Past Life” are wholly familiar, but a near hip-hop beat and constant shift in sound effects accentuate the band’s dynamic evolution.
Rockist doubts aside, Tame Impala is very much present on Currents. Their acidic melodies may now be adorned with sparkling keyboards and heady dance drums — flavors fully outside the rock wheelhouse — but Parker’s aim is to unite the two sensibilities, not to remove the band from the rock formula altogether. Currents is a singular achievement in that regard, a satisfying diversion in the flow of two styles of classic music previously at odds with one another. If they never learn to get along for good, that’s fine. At the very least Currents shows that it can be done, and done well.