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“Nothing has to mean anything,” a woman utters on “Nothing That Has Happened” from Tame Impala’s Lonerism, and Currents, the band’s out-of-character, synth-heavy album, is the sound of leading man Kevin Parker taking that advice. The album- which seems primed to split the band’s fanbase of dedicated rockers and those who want more diversity- pulls the band’s first LPs, 2010’s Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism, into a three-tiered arc. While Innerspeaker melded classic ‘60s sounds with Parker’s creativity, Lonerism tightened up the mixture and emphasized how the band was really the work of one man. Currents builds on that narrative by stripping away the shreds of guitar and dissonance to create a sprawling paean to synthpop and electronic music.
Tackling disco grooves and slow burners can periodically neuter the band and highlight flaws: Tame Impala sets the mood with phasers straight from “Twin Peaks” on the melancholic “Yes I’m Changing,” one of the smoother tracks off the album, but the verse-chorus transition just reminds me of Savage Garden and Backstreet Boys. Unfortunately, in instances like “Yes I’m Changing,” the sounds feel borrowed and the feeling of unencumbered exploration is lost. “Love/Paranoia” was brought down by an unknown, intergalactic force with predisposed indie rock templates and the progression feels by-the-numbers with uninspired lyrics. Repetitive lyrics have always been a sore spot for Tame Impala. While Parker’s musical persona as an ever-changing millennial is easily identifiable (Lonerism is my favorite album of 2012), he has rarely been able to express his feelings with any nuance and, because crunchy guitar can no longer mask his vocals into this newly adapted world, much of Currents is poor lyrically. He says “Life is moving / Can’t you see / There’s no future left for you and me” or compares heartache to an earthquake and, surely these emotions are genuine, yet they come off as children’s Valentine’s Day cards. The music is diverse, but there is little lyrical complexity.
The songs on Currents no longer feel etched from a place of solitude and isolation as much as on Lonerism as Kevin reinvents his attitude towards certain emotions through the use of pop music, especially when he sings “I can’t always hide away / Curse indulgence and despise fame / There is a world out there and it’s calling my name.” He is interested in the pain that comes from a breakup, but on a higher level, he is interested in forming a relationship between his output and album-oriented pop of all shapes. He is unapologetic about picking sounds from other decades, and if they meld together like he intended, then the songs take off into space. At any given moment on Currents, one can cite Styx (“Let It Happen”), the BeeGees (“The Moment”), Michael Jackson (“The Less I Know the Better”), disco, Daft Punk (“Past Life”), and even Coolio- believe me, just listen to “Gangster’s Paradise” and “Nangs”- which can either be overwhelming or remarkable. His use of compressed drums takes on a variety of rhythms while his use of similar pedals, effects, and digital treatments treat his phasers, keyboards, and synthesizers like an embrace. Up against the layered harmonies of past songs like “Alter Ego” and the mostly guitar-less “Nothing That Has Happened,” it is not out of the realm of possibility that Parker took such a left turn for his third album. By splicing the cringe-worthy with the inviting, he showcases his fascination for all music; where he gets his hooks, melodic lines, or transitions no longer matter.
From the start, “Let It Happen” reveals what incorporating different sounds has done to Parker’s songwriting: it follows several different paths of progressive rock, including a downplayed bass drop in the chorus, before getting cut off by a half-second loop and ending in theatrics. The luxuriousness and sexiness of ‘80s-style Prince comes out in “’Cause I’m A Man.” The finger-snapping “The Moment” is lush synthpop with a driving, playful rhythm with bands of vocal echoes that make the listener forget how straightforward the song is, and that is because he wants to elevate the sound into an all-encompassing experience. “The Less I Know the Better” sounds straight from Michael Jackson’s 1988 album Bad with the added bonus of the slinky bassline, which becomes the center of the majority of these tracks. One can hear Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips in the bombastic standout “Eventually” and the Ariel Pink sweetness in the two-minute “Disciples,” which are the loosest moments on Currents. The idea of album-oriented music returns because like early 2000s classics, Currents is about bringing in broad strokes of genres for a wider audience to hear and appreciate. Is Parker entirely successful? No, but the aim is true because he is building a relationship to the listener with familiar sounds that pop up everywhere.
The two remaining songs before the closer seem cut from the same cloth as Lonerism, “Reality in Motion” and “Love/Paranoia,” and are not as meaty as some of the other 11 tracks, mostly dealing with familiar dynamics and lackluster lyrics that can trouble most tracks in the back half of an album. Sultry R&B is all over “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” an ideal closer for Currents, with a seductive beat, throbbing bass, and a drop mid-track of a long-forgotten guitar ditty. His declarations of “Feel like a brand new person” seek to send the listener out on a high note, but the “But you make the same old mistakes” immediately following offers coherency with some of the more bitter lyrics off the album. Separated by the two minute “Nangs,” “Let It Happen” is Parker’s most convincing and powerful move. Opening up like a laser sequence to a Pink Floyd light show and a sci-fi action flick simultaneously, the frenetic keyboard sets up Parker as a spotlighted keyboardist gyrating for the audience while the beats and snaps set the stage for his smooth vocals. “’Let it happen, let it happen,’” intones Parker, in a line that already triggers a shift in his mental attitude, “It’s gonna feel so good.” His controlled vocal performance perfectly mirrors the moody, starry-eyed chorus and serves as a foil to the melodramatics surrounding him. After a harrowing keyboard line ushers him into a journey of new sound, he sings “Oh, maybe I was ready all along / Oh, maybe all I wanted was the sound.” Sans guitar, and Tame Impala are not doing half bad. Bravo.