This essay is adapted from a presentation I gave at our Classic Album Sundays Sydney listening party celebrating Tame Impala’s Currents earlier this month. I’ve included a playlist, embedded below.
There’s a paradox at the heart of the massive appeal of Tame Impala’s third album: it’s without a doubt a pop album, a conscious effort to make music for the masses, setting aside the guitars and the psychedelic rock of their earlier work for brighter, cleaner sounds influenced by disco, R&B and soft rock. And it worked: the album was a huge success and launched Tame Impala, who were already huge, even further into the stratosphere when it dropped in July of 2015.
And yet there’s nothing about Currents that remotely feels like a sellout or a compromise. There’s nothing done by committee or even in collaboration with anyone else. It’s the product of one person working alone for years, questioning himself to a painful degree, obsessively tweaking every last sound.
And the themes aren’t very pop either. Lyrically, it’s very introspective and doubtful and even dark — a mood that suits the restless, feverish solitude that produced it.
In that sense Currents is one of those miracles that happen from time to time in pop music: when an artist stays true to themselves and never compromises — and the weirder or more inside their own head they get, the more popular they become. I’m thinking of how Radiohead’s deliberately difficult and obtuse Kid A — an anguished sigh at the hopelessness of the music industry and the decay of our society — made them bigger than ever. Or how André 3000’s The Love Below — a retreat into eccentric solo work, subverting hip hop with folk, jazz, electronica and rock — sold millions and absolutely dominated the charts.
Currents was a similarly risky move for Kevin Parker, and it paid off with similar epoch-defining success. It felt like an instant classic to me when I first bought it. (It helped that I was late to the party — it was almost four years old when I got it, and it was already considered a classic by many.)
Tame Impala is a shape-shifting entity: both a group and a solo act. When they tour, the Perth-based band is made up of Parker along with synth player Jay Watson, guitarist Dominic Simper, bassist Cam Avery, and drummer Julien Barbagallo. But when it comes to recording, it’s a one-man show — much like Prince at the peak of his powers in the 80s (fittingly enough Parker cites Prince as an influence).
“The longer I’ve been in Tame Impala, the harder it is for me to split up the roles,” Parker says. “It’s like my brain is just all over everything. I’m thinking of a hundred things at once. To suddenly not think about one of those things takes some getting used to.”
The thing about Parker is this doesn’t sound like arrogance coming from him. It’s clearly just the way he’s most comfortable working. He knows what he wants to hear and how to make it happen — he’s been making music alone, multitracking himself playing different instruments, since he was ten years old. And Parker has said that among the members of the band, and the rest of the music scene in Perth, there’s an understanding that Tame Impala is his project just like they have their projects too (including Watson’s band Pond, who are great). So there’s no resentment when Parker kicks the others out at recording time.
“He’s a bedroom genius. I don’t really know anybody like him,” collaborator Mark Ronson has said. “I know a lot of talented multi-instrumentalists, but when you combine that with his taste and songwriting, it’s a really rare thing.”
(As a side note, I find it interesting that, because of all this, when people refer to Tame Impala on record, Parker’s pronouns often become “they/them” instead of “he/him.”)
Tame Impala’s music pre- and post-Currents is often presented as a dichotomy: the early, psychedelic guitary stuff, and the later electronic poppy stuff. But when you listen to what Parker has to say about it, it’s obvious it isn’t that black and white. The seeds of Currents were always there; while at the same time, Currents in no way abandons Parker’s commitment to expansive, heady sounds.
Despite the oblique psych-rock framework of their early work, Tame Impala had popular appeal almost from the beginning — thanks to Parker’s way with writing killer melodies that really do live up to the inevitable Beatles comparisons, and for his production that makes each instrument so vivid in the mix, more like an electronic recording than a rock one. (I’m sure his good looks didn’t hurt either.)
Even in his psych-rock mode, Parker was always very open-minded about the process of making music. “The way we do music, it’s organic, but it’s meant to be quite repetitive and hypnotic, almost in a kind of electronic nature. Using our playing as though it was a living sample.”
“There’s a lot of talk about, Is it a guitar or is it a synth?” Parker told Grantland. “I don’t even see the difference, because for me it’s the same thing. It’s just one has a slightly different texture. Usually it’s just what the closest thing was to me when I thought of the song. There’s a guitar there — sweet. Plug it in and do it.”
I love this. There’s no rational basis for the cultural divide between guitars and synths, between “real” instruments and electronic ones. A guitar is a machine, and a synth is a “real” instrument. I’ve always felt strongly about this, ever since I was in high school and discovered hip hop. I love that the guy who made psych-rock cool again in the last decade knows it too.
Currents has an amazing origin story. Apparently Parker was pranked at a hometown wedding by some mates, who arranged for the DJ to play a Tame Impala song in the middle of the reception. It ended up clearing the dancefloor. Parker was mortified: “It was such a rude awakening. It was awful! I was like, ‘Whaaaat? No-one wants to dance to Tame Impala?’ The idea that my music would clear out a dancefloor definitely made me feel like something was missing from my work.” The experience fired him up and gave him a new goal: “That was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Fuck this, I wanna make music that people can dance to.’”
He also cites another, very different epiphany as an influence on the album:
I was in L.A. a few years ago and for some reason we’d taken mushrooms, it must have been the end of our tour. I was coked up as well, and a friend was driving us around L.A. in this old sedan. He was playing the Bee Gees and it had the most profound emotional effect. I’m getting butterflies just thinking about it. I was listening to ‘Staying Alive,’ a song I’ve heard all my life. At that moment it had this really emotive, melancholy feel to it. The beat felt overwhelmingly strong and, at that moment, it sounded pretty psychedelic. It moved me, and that’s what I always want out of psych music. I want it to transport me.
Parker says Mark Ronson opened his eyes about pop-music production when he collaborated extensively on Ronson’s Uptown Special album, which was recorded in Memphis in 2014 while Parker was writing Currents.
“Mark’s a big reason why I had the confidence to do what I did with Currents,” Parker told NME last year. “He showed me how pop music could have such a craft to it.”
“I decided that I wanted to make weird pop music, and I wasn’t afraid to make pop music and stand behind it. I just wanted to make silky disco-pop and anyone who says that they don’t like that kind of music is missing out.”
“I’m aware that there will be fans of my previous stuff for whom [Currents] doesn’t resonate with as much, because they’ve got their values set,” he told Pitchfork. “But if I can convince a few die-hard rock fans that 80s synths can fit over a 70s drum beat — if I can help them to look outside the square of traditional psych-rock — then at least one mission is accomplished.”
As indicated by that sentiment, Currents saw Parker moving from his 60s influences into the 70s. The album is analogous to the 70s evolution of artists like Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees and David Bowie — as they, too, moved from psychedelic rock to funkier, brighter, more feel-good sounds. It’s as if Parker is retracing their steps.
But of course Currents doesn’t really sound like the 70s in a retro sense — it’s not just aping the past. It has a very fresh, even glossy modern sound. The stuttering loops on “Let It Happen” and “Reality in Motion” that sound like techno remixes. The huge kick-drum sound; the sheer clarity of the drums and percussion (the finger snaps sounded so amazing when we presented this album on our hi-fi system!). The hair-raising moment the low end comes in on “Disciples” like it’s being EQ’d by a DJ. The not-so-subtle influence of Daft Punk, deep house, and other electronic forms (which became even more apparent on last year’s splendid follow-up LP, The Slow Rush). This is an incredible headphones album. I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Past Life” in the headphones; the impact of those distorted bass drops and the sheer drama of it all made me laugh out loud with delight.
No one — at least no one in the rock or indie world — can write a keyboard line as insanely addictive as Parker does here on “Disciples” or “Reality in Motion.” There’s something about the chord changes on those tracks — it feels so epic it’s almost heroic.
But Parker is also capable of restraint and even smoothness, showing the influence of Steely Dan, Quincy Jones and Hall & Oates in his intricate, melodic constructions (again, this came out even more on The Slow Rush).
The Quincy Jones vibe is very deliberate: “Michael Jackson’s one of my favorite artists of my whole life,” Parker told Grantland. “In fact, I think he is my favorite. It’s one of the first things I fell in love with before I learned about genres and before I knew what was cool to like.”
In their review of Currents, Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen called Parker “the best and most underrated rock bassist of the 21st century” — the point being that, with the guitars downplayed, his bass playing really comes to the fore on this album. I love the way the fuzzy distortion on the bass contrasts with the crystalline clarity of the synths, in a way that seems very inspired by Daft Punk and the rest of the French school of house. I would add that he’s also a great drummer; many of his drum patterns are worthy of hip-hop breaks. Parker is a diabolical genius at recreating the feel of old disco and funk breaks and samples. As if he’s digging in the crates for samples to use on his productions, but the vintage records were made by him.
As for the vocals: Parker’s sublime soft-rock falsetto is one of the most crucial elements on the album — the reason the songs get stuck in my head for weeks. On his earlier work, his voice was often compared to John Lennon’s — which made the Beatles comparisons, however apt, even harder to live down. But here he moves on from that, embracing a style more akin to Barry Gibb.
Parker is as obsessive about his own vocals as he is about every other sonic element in his recordings: “If I don’t do a vocal take in the first take then I’ll do it on the 500th,” he told triple j. “On one of these songs I remember looking at the recording program I use and the number had hit four digits: 1057 or whatever. So I was like, ‘Oh my god, have I literally done 1057 vocal takes? Is that what this has come to!?’”
I love the flow of this album: the way it audaciously launches right into the epic eight-minute opening statement that is “Let It Happen,” with its pulsating, trippy rave-rock, daring the listener to come along on the journey. Then it winds its way through some more mellow or brighter sounds, including the yacht-rock inspired “The Moment,” the disco of “The Less I Know the Better” (which I’m just guessing won’t be clearing a wedding dancefloor anytime soon) and the hands-in-the-air choruses of “Reality in Motion.” Finally it reaches a darker, more brooding place with “Love/Paranoia” and the fabulous closer, “Brand New Person (Same Old Mistakes).” It’s a proper album in every sense, worthy of Parker’s 70s inspirations. It tells a story.
A wonderful symbol of how Parker succeeded at his goal to make his music more accessible and danceable is that Rihanna not only covered “Brand New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on her 2016 album Anti, she actually lifted the backing track wholesale, simply replacing her vocals with his. That was a boss move — it’s as though she knew she wasn’t going to improve on his track so she just took it. It’s a big compliment to Parker’s production, but her vocal really adds a new feel to the song and she kind of owns it too. It’s a good look for both artists, really.
I like how, despite its huge international success, Currents has a very Australian feel — like the way Parker doesn’t bother to soften his accent when he sings “The less I know the bettahh!” and his use of Aussie slang like “Nangs” (that’s what Aussie kids call nitrous oxide canisters, in case you didn’t know). It very much feels like exactly what it is: an album recorded in a beach house in Western Australia. It has a very sunny, summery, cruisy feel. It sounds like what I pictured life would be like in Australia before I moved here (and honestly it sometimes is like that).
Parker’s method is to get up late and record long into the night, and he isn’t shy about admitting that drinking and smoking is often part of his creative process: “Things flow easier — the flow is the most important thing for me for recording.” He also says he’s inspired by swimming in the ocean, which is only 100 meters from his front door.
“It’s literally just me in a room,” he told the Guardian. “I love to have everything within reach, so that it starts resembling a cockpit. I love to be able to put my hands on a keyboard, to have a guitar and a bass within reach, as well as all the effects. Then I just piece it together.”
“I wake up, listen to what I did the night before, then fiddle. At some point, life outside the studio fades into the distance. That’s how I know that I’m into it. If I was to stay level-headed and sane the whole time I’d probably be a bit disappointed because it would mean that I didn’t give my all.”
Despite the beachy, summery vibe, the album also has a very autumnal feel in the introspective, downbeat themes. (I bought the album in autumn so it will always be locked in as an autumn album for me — that’s just how my brain works.)
The lyrics, which often touch on the stock-standard pop subject of heartbreak, are actually quite thorny and complex upon inspection. There’s a sense of restless questioning on every song. Parker is rather fearless about portraying himself as shallow, immature, in need of work, and willing to change. Change is the dominant theme on Currents, clearly laid out on the opener, “Let It Happen,” and on the third proper track, “Yes I’m Changing,” on which Parker sings, “They say people never change, but that’s bullshit.”
Currents is often seen as a breakup album. Indeed, in the midst of working on it, he broke up with his girlfriend, French musician Melody Prochet (she works under the name Melody’s Echo Chamber, and her stuff is really good). Parker then left Paris, where he’d been living with her, and decamped back to Perth to finish the album on his own.
Parker denies that it’s really a breakup album: “People think that all of those songs are about breaking up, but I’m really singing about breaking up with myself and another part of myself.”
“It’s more about this idea that you’re being pulled into another place that’s not better or worse. It’s just different,” he told Pitchfork. “And you can’t control it. There are these currents within you.” (See what he did there?)
Whatever the grander themes, the emotional wreckage of romantic relationships is explicit on several songs, especially “Eventually,” “The Less I Know the Better” and “Past Life.”
“It excited me to tell the story from the other side,” Parker told the Guardian. “‘Eventually’ is a song about someone who knows they’re about to damage someone. They’re not going to be the one experiencing the pain that’s dealt. They’re the one dealing it. Arguably, it’s just as emotionally crippling knowing that you’re gonna do that. It’s just as heavy. It’s just as torturous.”
(As a side note, I hope Prochet is okay with all this. I’ve had exactly one song written about me, and the experience of hearing it performed live was both flattering and deeply uncomfortable.)
I’ve thought a lot about the lyrics of “Cause I’m a Man.” On the surface it seems lame that Parker, addressing a lover he’s hurt (possibly by sleeping around), is shrugging and saying, hey baby, I can’t help it — I’m a man. It’s very basic and blokey. But the verses reveal more nuance:
Like the brutal autumn sun
It dawns on me, what have I done?
Saying sorry ain’t as good as saying why
But it buys me a little more time
In another line, Parker calls himself “pathetic”; and on the final verse he switches from “Don’t always think before I do” to “I’ll never be as strong as you.” So I think it isn’t so much making lame excuses as it’s a song about making lame excuses.
I appreciate that Parker is trying to grapple with this stuff. I wouldn’t exactly call it feminist; but I think there’s a lot of young guys out there who might hear the vulnerability and self-reflection in this song and take a lesson from it. In our toxic culture that’s a little win I think. Anyway, I know a lot of women who love Tame Impala; and when we presented the album in Sydney, several women in the audience spoke up in favor of the sensitivity in the lyrics. I think there’s something about it that really connects.
The increasingly dark tracks that follow add more context. Parker’s self-deprecating continues as the album winds on towards its climax: “I know you think it’s fake / Maybe fake is what I like” and “Suddenly I’m the phony one” and lamenting becoming “All that I used to hate.”
There’s a duality to all the perspectives on the album, reflected in song titles like “Brand New Person, Same Old Mistakes” and “Love/Paranoia.” On “Eventually,” Parker sings to the lover that he’s leaving: “And I know that I’ll be happier and I know you will too.” But then the long, drawn-out “Eventuallllllllyyyyyy” seems to mock that spin, as if it were toxic positivity.
On “Let It Happen,” after psyching himself into accepting change, he concludes on a downer note: “If I never come back, tell my mother I’m sorry.”
At times this duality expresses itself in the music — the way “Let It Happen” shifts into another gear halfway through, that thrilling moment where the track starts looping and the “Kashmir”-like Mellotron comes in, the whole track becoming wildly expansive, going into the cosmos, as if to make tangible Parker’s lyrics about transition and transformation. That loopiness is oddly disconcerting (it made me wonder if the needle was skipping the first time I listened to it), and it’s queasy, and it’s thrilling — just like change can be in real life.
The duality is never better expressed than on the closing track. Parker’s contradiction and doubt is reflected as an internal dialogue: “Feel like a brand new person! (But you’ll make the same old mistakes!)” Then comes that spine-tingling moment when it changes into a new song completely — the drums and synths more distorted, as if they’re coming from another room — and Parker switches from his normal singing voice into his falsetto, and also takes on a different narrative voice. This new voice has new clarity, lambasting his other self for his indecision: “Man, I know that it’s hard to digest / But maybe your story ain’t so different from the rest.”
Then the track switches back into what it was before the changeup, the backing instruments ironically sounding crisper and clearer again as Parker’s lyrics retreat into their muddle of confusion. “Feel like a brand new person / So how will I know that it’s right?”
It’s a really interesting and telling way to end an album that started out with an admonition to just let it happen.