Tame Impala's Currents, Reviewed

Currents is the most confident album in Parker’s discography, drawing from disco, R&B and synthpop, and doing away with guitars almost entirely
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Currents is the most confident album in Parker’s discography, drawing from disco, R&B and synthpop, and doing away with guitars almost entirely

The name Tame Impala has never really been more than a front for Kevin Parker. It’s a band in the sense that LCD Soundsystem was; one musician, writing and recording almost everything on their own, with a solidified touring lineup. Parker always has and always will define what Tame Impala is. If you follow the lyrics from the beginning of Innerspeaker to the end of Lonerism, Parker etches his mercurial headspace into every line. Innerspeaker is the more Zen of his first two LPs, an introspective man’s self-portrait as he finds peace with his interpersonal limitations. Lonerism was an analysis of the fallout. Embarking on a heavy worldwide tour on the success of Innerspeaker, Parker was out of his comfort zone, confronting new sources of doubt and self-effacement. Only on Lonerism’s final two tracks does he seem to find equilibrium.

Just when you thought Parker might get his feet under him, Currents shifts the conversation. While Lonerism elaborated upon Innerspeaker’s druggy guitar crunches, Currents redraws the boundaries for what Tame Impala, and indeed a modern psychedelic record, is supposed to sound like. It is the most confident album in Parker’s discography, drawing from disco, R&B and synthpop and doing away with guitars almost entirely. Currents doesn’t make much of an effort to please anyone who fell in love with that vortexed riff on “It’s Not Meant to Be”.

We’ll start with the obvious. No matter your proclivities for this new style, it’s hard to deny that Currents sounds fantastic. Parker isn’t using any new instruments here, he’s reappropriating instruments he has been using all along. Only this time, everything is curated cleanly. The xylophones sparkle, fat, funky bass lines dominate in place of Parker’s axe, and the percussive elements are crisp and delineated with tremendous care.

Currents’ production is just as important as the songwriting. It would be easy to botch a sound that was usually threatening to tread into schmaltz. Parker isn’t the first genre specialist to progress from their original era of inspiration to a later, shinier one. Currents will no doubt polarize because the shift is so significant. But unlike some of his contemporaries, the transition feels more natural for Parker, and more fruitful. “Eventually” erupts while “Reality in Motion” sighs and swoons, and the contrast is impressive. The opening bars of “The Less I Know the Better” pull off an attention-grabbing trick that could become rock music’s answer to “the drop”. Interstitial pieces “Nangs” and “Gossip” are just technical showboating. Parker succeeds at almost everything tries his hand at here.

While Currents lacks the purity of Innerspeaker and the eclectic sprawl of Lonerism, it still boasts some incredible tunes. There’s the Homerian opener “Let It Happen”. Thanks to the wobbly interlude “Nangs”, it seems deliberately insulated from the rest of the album, but it’s still one of the finest songs in Parker’s entire discography. In the footsteps of “Music to Walk Home By”, “The Moment” gets better as it goes, piling on harmonies over an aloof groove and subtle chord changes until everything collapses in on itself beautifully. The miniaturized “Disciples” and the linear pop of “Cause I’m A Man” are also standouts.

The songs listed above also highlight one of Currents’ more unconventional problems. Many of its strongest tracks were released well in advance of the album. The unheard two-thirds that remain can’t help feeling a little discombobulating on the first few listens, and in particular as the album draws to a close. “Love/Paranoia” could be the weakest track to make it onto a Tame Impala LP yet. Besides sounding half-formed, it also interrupts what could have been a superior coda in “Reality In Motion” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Currents a breakup album, but it also wouldn’t tell the whole story. Parker spent a good portion of Lonerism chasing the girl, romanticizing, waffling, and then chasing her again. On Currents, he has already let her go. The juxtaposition of “Yes I’m Changing” and “Eventually” is especially poignant as Parker examines a breakup from both sides of the divide. But the streak of self-examination also remains uninterrupted, and it benefits from a new sense of perspective. Currents is a consummate grower, in part the musical evolution is overwhelming. It takes some time to realize how painstaking it was for Parker to achieve these personal revelations. If we have seen the last of those stun gun guitars, Currents tries to make the case that Parker’s blossoming sonic adventurousness is a worthwhile tradeoff. 

B+

Currents is out July 17, 2015. Order it here.