Counterbalance: Tame Impala – Currents

On Currents, Tame Impala hit upon a winning formula, moving seamlessly between electronic and organic, big ideas and bigger licks, pushed by an unstoppable rhythm.
Tame Impala

Mendelsohn: I still have a little bit of a new music addiction, Klinger. There is nothing like getting a new record and being blown away by something I have never heard before. In reality, though, nothing sounds new anymore. After nearly a decade of Counterbalance, half of which we spent wandering the wilderness of the Great List, my brain has been trained to see through the wall of sound and start to dissect the influence behind each and every note. Some days I find the experience to be enlightening. Some days it can be crushing as it sucks the joy out of the simple experience of hearing new music. But then, that is the yin and yang of music, nay, of life itself. Pardon me for waxing philosophic, but I’ve been listening to Tame Impala’s newest record Currents and the psychedelic pop licks are starting to melt my brain.

Are you familiar with Tame Impala? They are an Australian rock outfit consisting mostly of Kevin Parker. They have released three albums over the last five years, each to growing critical acclaim and each pushing the boundary between psychedelia, rock, smooth pop and, most recently, R&B. It is an intoxicating mix, Klinger, a seemingly large sound yet unerringly intimate. On Currents, Parker and Co. hit upon a winning formula, moving seamlessly between electronic and organic, big ideas and bigger licks, pushed by an unstoppable rhythm. I know all of our heads will melt at different rates but is this having an effect on you?

Klinger Well, I’m not sure if my head is melting, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that it’s wrapped in a soft fuzzy blanket of silk and feather-clouds and moonbeams hand-woven by laughing mermaid angel-brides. Which is interesting.

Interesting because the second Currents started rolling, I was pretty sure you had once again dropped me into another one of your synthy dance traps a la those French robot guys. And I was all set to trot out my usual skeptical tropes about how this music always leaves me cold and how the song all seem to meander and percolate until they finally just wear themselves out and how it’s all just so much squiggly-woo (unless, of course, it’s Kraftwerk—in which case, percolate on…).

But then I kept listening and sure enough, this Parker guy is actually writing some songs here. Honest to goodness songs with verses and choruses and lyrics that appear to be about stuff instead of just random snippets stolen from an inspirational poster. And then the more I’m listening, the more the lyrics reveal themselves from amid the sparkle and gloss. I know I’m probably late to the party here, in my defense their debut album came out scant months before we disappeared down the Great List rabbit hole. So sue me, now I’m intrigued. Tell me more of this Tame Impala, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: I know, right? What were we doing? As soon as we left the chronology of the Great List, I immediately went out to see what I had missed. Tame Impala released Innerspeaker in 2010, a psychedelic rock miss mash, followed by 2012’s Lonerism, an album I had tentatively selected for Counterbalance until Currents came out earlier this year. From record to record, there is a clear progression of song craft as Parker moves from making psychedelic pop in the vein of the Bealtes and Pink Floyd to adding bigger ideas and bigger beats a la the Flaming Lips until we reach the current day with the inclusion of a little R&B. Shades of Prince maybe? I don’t know, these were just a couple of thoughts that crossed my mind before it started melting into the technicolor splash of melody and reverb.

But that hyper-expressive, multidimensional aspect of Tame Impala’s music belies a deeper take from the lyrical material. Parker’s introspective lyrics deal with everything from relationships to the intricacies of being human. Actually, most of the songs deal with relationships and when you get right down to it, most of the time he is apologizing to some unknown person. Does this qualify as a breakup album, Klinger? It’s been a long time since we’ve done one of those.

Klinger It might, although you know I don’t like to pry into an artist’s personal life (unless it’s Bob Dylan, of course, in which case I feel I have a right to know everything that’s going on in his head at all times). If this Parker fellow has gone through a difficult breakup, then I will concur that I hear some of that in these sounds. And yeah, I can hear some of ’80s-era Prince in here, especially given that His Royal Badness hit that sweet spot between experimentation and accessible groovery in those times. One listen to the voices on “Past Life” offers a good indication that Tame Impala is in the same place.

It’s interesting to note, too, that Currents was a bona fide hit upon its release, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Top 200. I realize that, given the realities of the record industry these days, you don’t have to shift nearly as many units to reach those heights, but it is indicative of the notion that the lines between popular music and the so-called alternative have been forever blurred. Here’s a band with major-label backing, whose album hits the Top 10, and no one on the musical left is calling them a sellout and no one on the musical right has ever heard of them. (Can we say left/right to describe these indie vs. Simon Cowellian factions?) Maybe it doesn’t matter, though, since I’m pretty sure just one listen to “Let It Happen” would make the conversions (OK, maybe the shorter single version. People’s attention spans are still shrinking at an alarming rate.)

Mendelsohn: I would advocate for the original version of “Let It Happen”. At nearly eight minutes, that song perfectly encapsulates the record, and sets up the listener for the coming sonic experience. I suppose you could make a case against the superfluous jamming, but Parker’s simultaneous flaunting of and disregard for pop ideals is really at the core of this record. I’m not surprised that Currents charted so well — it is a well-constructed record that speaks the lingua franca of pop. “Let It Happen” has it all; catchy riffs, a great hook, an undeniable beat, overwrought string accompaniment. On the flip side it’s clearly a psychedelic rock record, full of odd ideas, vague lyrical material and strange noise. There is a point near the end of “Let It Happen” where the guitar kicks back in, a dirty, fuzzed-out riff that grounds the last several minutes of ethereal synth and Parker’s hazy voice. The rest of the album travels at the speed of booty shaking, a non-stop cavalcade of hand claps and finger snaps or slinky bass lines and ballads that are far sexier and funkier than I had anticipated.

I don’t want to take anything away from Parker or Tame Impala, but you only have to sell 100 or so actual copies of your record to hit the Billboard charts. In reality, Currents moved 50,000 units in its first week. Compare that to N*SYNC’s No Strings Attached, released in 200, that sold 2.42 million the first week. The music industry has fallen from the greatest of heights. But I don’t think that tells the whole story. The line between indie and mainstream has completely blurred over the last decade thanks to several factors. Indie rock stepped up in the middle of last decade, putting out the better music as the smaller labels sought to fill the void left by the crumbling majors. The major labels that had any sense started to co-opt the indie movement, working new ideas and directions into their line ups. And finally, the music listener has changed. Young people these days do not have the hangups when it comes to listening music. The Great Genre Wall fell years ago — the democratizing effect of the internet erased preconceived notions of what is cool and what is not. I don’t know when it happened, but the younger generations feel no shame when it comes to music. Everything is fair game — Journey and Bon Jovi records play next to Nirvana and Dr. Dre. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But then, they don’t have the gatekeepers telling them to feel bad about liking what they like.

I’m not baffled by the success of Tame Impala. Parker has shown that he can push the boundary of musical expression each and every time he commits anything to wax and I look forward to many more albums. If he continues to make succulent blasts of pop like “Disciples”, or the funky R&B of “Yes, I’m Changing” and “‘Cause I’m a Man”, or the psychedelic rock of “Let It Happen” and “Eventually,” I’ll gladly pay the price of admission and take the ride.