Time Traveling With Tame Impala
The new album Currents raids psychedelic music history to make a strangely powerful philosophical point.
People have worried about nostalgia strangling pop culture for decades, but 2015 might go down as the year it revealed its dastardly plot. The remake and reboot craze that’s long afflicted the movie industry has spread to TV. The biggest book of the year was written about 60 years ago. In music, the mega-smash “Blurred Lines” was legally ruled to be little more than a Marvin Gaye cover, and the credits for the defining track of 2015, “Uptown Funk,” now include five members of the Gap Band for work they did in 1979. Even outside of the mainstream, the situation is much as it was when Simon Reynolds wrote Retromania in 2011: “The very people you would have expected to produce (as artists) or champion (as consumers) the non-traditional and the groundbreaking—that’s the group who are most addicted to the past … The avant-garde is now an arrière-garde.”
One of the new icons of this arrière-garde is 29-year-old Kevin Parker, the man behind the Australian buzz band Tame Impala. With the hairstyle of a deadhead and a voice that’s frequently compared to John Lennon’s, he has said that one of his main ambitions for Tame Impala’s third album, Currents, is to “convince a few die-hard rock fans that ‘80s synths can fit over a ‘70s drum beat.” The resulting sound, not to mention cover art, will induce flashbacks to such unfashionable touchstones as Yes, or even Toto.
But if the art of the present day is doomed to be mostly a remix of elements of the past, let it all be as knowingly done and moving as Tame Impala. To the extent that Currents is pastiche, it’s pastiche with a point of view, collapsing a few decades of psychedelic sounds into one lovely blur—time starts to sounds like a flat circle, and nostalgia starts to seem like a way of envisioning the future.
You can most clearly see what he’s up to on the album’s eighth track, “Past Life.” Between choruses as smooth as “Kokomo,” a keyboard melody seemingly lifted from an after-school special plays as a low, pitch-shifted voice talks about glimpsing “a lover from a past life.” At first, I assumed it all amounted to an affectionate appropriation of new-age spirituality. But then, at the end of the song, the narrator starts wondering whether this lover from a past life has changed her telephone number. It’s a reveal: He’s not blathering about reincarnation, he’s blathering about a real-world ex—and considering getting back together with her.
Parker works like this throughout the album, connecting ordinary-seeming relationship troubles with stereotypically hippy-dippy ideas about eternity and recurrence. Which isn’t, as it may sound, pretension; after all, it’s everyday problems, not visits to the Esalen Institute, that leads to most peoples’ existential questioning. Accordingly, even as the music evokes laser shows and soft-focus video art, the melodies remain sturdy, the song structures trend poppy, and the philosophy is also straight talk. “They say people never change,” Parker sings at one point, “but that's bullshit.”
When the album’s the most gobsmacking, which is often, is when the lyrical themes align perfectly with the musical ones. The first example: During an instrumental break in the opening track “Let It Happen,” the music gets stuck. Like, the song starts to skip; it sounds like the CD is scratched or your iTunes is frozen. But then some violins come in and the arrangement rebuilds itself, gorgeously, around the glitchy new groove. It’s a high concept gimmick that’s also moving—here’s reality moving like a stream, getting diverted by some obstacle, and making a new path.
Not all of the album lands so strongly; it wouldn’t be a psychedelic trip if you couldn’t zone out for a bit. But the highlights tend to wake the listener up, whether the listener’s ready or not. The best track, “Eventually,” arrives with distorted bass slams so vivid they make it seem like the speakers are busted (broken machines: another thematically appropriate trope—do not adjust your television, etc. etc.). “I know that I’ll be happier, and I know you will too /eventually” Parker sings, rationalizing a break-up in the most common way possible. But when those bass bombs reappear, the arrangement disintegrates, and the keyboards go all Bruce Hornsby-like, it becomes clear just how expansive he wants the word “eventually” to be. It could mean next week; it could mean next year; it could mean another life, when time has folded back up on itself and all of old music has been made new again.