Editor’s Note: Shining a light on the more prominent artists of the passing decade; we’ll be taking a look at the artists who made a monumental impact on the 2010s and landed several albums in our 200 Best Albums Of The 2010s list in a series of pieces through the end of 2019. Tame Impala is where the critic’s and the people’s opinions converge. Innerspeaker, Lonerism, and Currents all land within the Top 30 of our 200 Best, Currents landed at #1 on a load of decade lists across the internet, and then there is VICE naming them Artist of the Decade. Not a bad decade for Kevin Parker. Let’s jump into the last ten years of Tame Impala with Kat Bein.
Where once ’70s metal bands met derision for incorporating synthesizers, trailblazers of indie aesthetics found themselves in the studio with hip-hop behemoths, plastic pop divas and all-manner of weirdos. Seemingly-disparate influences mixed in exciting new formulae, the results often delicious, inspiring Gen Z listeners to detest the concept of “genres” altogether.
Among the icons to emerge this decade, Australian psych-pop maestro Tame Impala best embodies this chameleonic bill. Born Kevin Parker, the obsessive creator writes and records Tame Impala’s layered instrumentation himself, sometimes locked in a room alone until his high standards are met. It’s a technique he’s employed since he was 12, having learned from his own guitar-playing father who passed away from cancer before the project’s official debut.
He played in many bands before Tame Impala and began the project as a lark, right around the time he’d decided he wouldn’t be a rock star after all and so should probably focus at University. He has instead gone on to be one of the best-selling and beloved breakout acts of his generation, admired by musicians across genre borders, finding a special sweet-spot in the world of contemporary hip-hop and R&B.
Here, we take a closer look at how his own progression mirrors the story of its era, perhaps to explain how Tame Impala became a voice of this moment.
The beginning of the Tame Impala conversation is just that; a conversation. Innerspeaker is a reference to the voice in one’s head. As a solo artist, Parker tries to pull the songs in his skull into some sharable form as close to the originals as possible. As a lyricist, he tackles themes of isolation (“Solitude is Bliss”) and self-doubt (“Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind”), the mental back-and-forth of finding the right words (“Lucidity”), and the final resolution that you’re actually quite happy living life as an outsider (“I Don’t Really Mind”).
He recorded the album in a rather isolated Australian mansion that leaked when it rained, which ruined a few takes when water would get on the equipment. The enchanting landscape proved wildly inspiring, though, perhaps influencing the lush, layered soundscapes. “Alter Ego” particularly ebbs and flows like watching mountains out a passenger seat car window. The cover art, designed by Australian artist Leif Podhajsky, reflects the sound and lyrical themes with a hallucinatory mountain scene endlessly rippling inward toward its horizon.
Sonically, it’s his most pure work of psychedelic rock. It’s 11 tracks play at 51 minutes top to bottom. Jangling guitars and echoing vocals drift through the air like a balloon, drawing comparisons to the trippy sounds of the late ’60s and ’70s freak rock. It’s especially easy to draw parallels to later Beatles work, as Parker’s voice is very John Lennon-esque and always has been.
It’s dreamy and meandering with upbeat rhythms and sunny melodies that contrast with some of the pensive messages. Parker once called it “a summer album that you can put on during the day, rather than a winter album, but at the same time you can be emotional in the right ways and like melancholic, or whatever that word is.”
The fuzzed-out, lo-fi quality has been attributed to Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, whom Parker tapped to mix the record. The musicians also nods to some engineering work by Tim Holmes of Death in Vegas, who encouraged Parker to use some different microphones.
Commercial music in 2010 was all high-production auto-tune and fetishized synthesizers. It was the birth year of “EDM” as a term, and while the rest of the world looked at rock as a geezer’s sport, Tame Impala’s rough-around-the-edges funk played smooth around the edges, taking equal cues from garage rock and jazz.
The introspective nature was a departure from radio party anthems, yet it’s honesty and integrity could not be denied. The album shot to immediate international acclaim and sent the musician on a tour around the world with a backup band to bring each plush sonic element to life. It’s a brilliant debut that plays timeless with classic rock techniques. No wonder it broke the top 30 of the Discogs’ list.
Parker’s struggle with fame and attention began to show on Innerspeaker in “Runway Houses City Clouds,” and it would only amplify with the album’s praise. This battleground of the rock star fantasy versus reality became the thesis behind his sophomore record. The album cover depicts a point-of-view look at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris from behind a metal gate, reinforcing the outsider perspective of the songs. Parker has described it as a sort of prequel to Innerspeaker, in the sense that the first album centers around a protagonist who knows he likes living on the social outskirts, while Lonerism tells the story of a man struggling to come to terms with his “otherness.”
That’s not to say Lonerism is a depressed record. It’s sonically much poppier than its predecessor, featuring catchier melodies and more traditional song structures, crafted from fewer guitars and more synthesizers. He began to let his love of pop music shine through. Synths also gave him a new form of sonic experimentation. He had taken guitars to their limit, and here were analog machines opening new worlds of weird noise. He once called the album “really fucked-up, explosive, cosmic music. It’s like Britney Spears singing with The Flaming Lips.”
The dichotomy of feeling plays in a dichotomy of sound throughout the album’s 12 songs. Intro tune “Be Above It” mixes driving drum rhythms against floating vocal echoes. The melodies drift in their own atmosphere while the beat keeps steady tether to the social world. The lyrics are like a mantra, even more so on the follow-up song “Enders Toi.” “Music To Walk Home By” is another perfect example of the juxtaposed quality of rhythm versus floating melody, but Parker blends each mood perfectly, creating an exciting twist on infectious pop techniques.
He presents the album with a cinematic quality aided by bits and pieces of ambient noise recording. He became obsessed with these scene setters, most evident on the unintelligible party chatter of “Keep On Lying,” the resolution on the final tune “Sun’s Coming Up” and the total dialogue cut-away in the middle of “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control.” The latter is perhaps the climactic peak of the record, directly addressing his mixed feelings on fame and the effect it can have on creation. “Every man is happy,” he sings, “until happiness is suddenly a goal.”
Lonerism was a huge success, winning Australian ARIA awards for Best Rock Album and Album of the Year. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Elephant” became huge hits, the latter being used in numerous commercials.
The album also saw his introduction to the experimental hip-hop scene. Tyler, The Creator was a very loud fan of the record (you can hear the strong influence on his composition in 2017’s Flower Boy), later introducing his friend Frank Ocean to the project. Kendrick Lamar sampled “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” for his song on the Divergent film soundtrack, while A$AP Rocky sampled the song for his tune “Unicorn.” This cross-genre appeal would soon become one of Tame Impala’s calling cards, and led to his working with star pop producer Mark Ronson in the years between his second and third albums.
Always writing and creating, he began penning the Currents tunes as soon as Lonerism wrapped, but it took some years for the final products to take shape. Meeting like-minded creatives across the board, seeing how they sampled and covered his music in their own styles, and not least his relationship with Ronson pushed Parker to make his most lauded album, albeit the biggest sonic leap from Innerspeak’s psychedelic fuzz.
Parker told two interviewers he was inspired by to make the record one night while listening to the Bee Gee‘s “Stayin Alive” while on cocaine and mushrooms. He also performed in a “space disco band” called AAA Aardvark Getdown Services for a brief stint between, which perhaps informed the synth-heavy, groove-forward sounds of Currents. He wrote, recorded, produced and mixed the entire album himself, a first for the solo artist. It was perhaps his most obsessive work to date, consuming his entire life from waking to the wee hours of dawn. After it’s release, Parker told Spin “the only rule was to make an attempt to abandon the rules that I’ve set up in the past.”
The mad masterpiece sees guitars fade in the distance, supporting players for the sci-fi synths that color the record’s electropop tracks. Rhythmically, it plays heavily into classic R&B motifs, especially on “Let It Happen” the honey-drip vocals of “Let it Happen” and the Motown-esque honey drip of ‘Cause I’m A Man.” The production is much cleaner, especially on the vocals, which Parker wanted to highlight having become prouder of his autobiographical lyrical style.
Of course, all of this was a huge transition from his previous work, and the theme of transformation covers the album. The artwork shows a linear plane upset by the passage of a silver ball that leaves ripples in its wake. There are hints of a struggle and self-doubt, particularly on “Disciples” which could be seen as a hypothetical conversation between Tame Impala and his fans who might detest his new sound. Mostly, though, the artist sings himself into his new role via the self-affirmations of “Let It Happen,” “The Moment,” “Yes I’m Changing” and “Reality in Motion.”
It must also be said that Currents is often read as a breakup album. Parker left his longtime girlfriend, herself an indie rocker artist, and some of the tunes definitely tell that story from the perspective of the one who’s leaving, “Eventually” most of all, while “Love/Paranoia” and “The Less I Know The Better” sing of infidelity. Parker denies the entire album is about the end of that relationship, and while love could be at the heart of the songs, the personal transformation of an artist at large does seem the driving factor.
The album ends with “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” a lovely tune that captures the hardest truth at the end of metamorphosis. We change our colors and learn our lessons throughout our lives, and yet, when we’re alone in our rooms once more, we find the same patterns still drive the voice in our heads. It’s a very relatable song, made even more accessible by a stunning cover by R&B pop icon Rihanna. Parker said her version seemed to give the song it’s honorable peak, finding a home with an R&B artist the likes of which inspired the album from the beginning.
Currents became Tame Impala’s most influential and commercially-successful album, proving that an indie alt darling can become a disco lover and survive to tell the tale. His music has continued to see love across genres. He recently worked with rapper Theophilus London on a collaborative project, received writing credits on Kanye West‘s “Violent Crimes” and helped produce Travis Scott‘s song “Skeletons” from his critically-acclaimed album Astroworld. Parker performed the song with Scott live on SNL, flanked by fellow guitar icon John Mayer.
Most recently, Parker released two new songs, Patience and Borderline, and he confirmed a new album is to come in 2020. The world waits to see what new frontiers Tame Impala will wander, but in the new borderless world he’s helped create, anything is possible.