Jeff Pearson, September 14, 2012
Listen: “Apocalypse Dreams”
There is an image floating around the Internet: an aerial shot of the creative proprietor behind the Australian psychedelic rock project Tame Impala, Kevin Parker, lying pensively on top of a shag rug, feet propped on a chair, with a halo of equipment enclosing him. He is holding a vintage Hofner bass, eyes closed, seemingly swimming in a liquid bassline recorded minutes before as it plays back on the dish headphones. Instruments are placed in the type of haphazard perfection that only a singular mind can muster up as making sense to provide the best workspace imaginable. Everything is there, from guitar and effects pedals to synthesizers and eight-track recorder. The picture is so striking because it is such a vivid representation of how Parker works as an artist, the instruments surrounding his head representing each note that spills from his mind. Tame Impala represents the innerworkings of his thoughts, a place of both chaos and serenity in which he has total creative control. Looking at the lone figure that could be either so wiped from working, or so lost in the sounds he is creating, the image is all one needs to see to know that Parker is Tame Impala. He is practically one with the equipment surrounding him, a cable entwined in the mess of the other cables beneath him.
Being that Tame Impala’s music is such a singular entity, it’s not surprising that the debut record, Innerspeaker, was so focused and marked with Parker’s unique vision. A lot of comparisons have been made with the newest wave of widespread psychedelic rock to the origins of the genre, a short time when psychedelia seemed to rule the world. Bands all over the world began popping up, projectors and kaleidoscopic film reels in tow, ready to take part in the craze—much like today. The comparisons seem to hit a snag when it comes to Tame Impala, however. Not only has there never been more prominent Aussie psychedelia, but even in the time when the style first exploded onto the scene, to give listeners something more adventurous than what was typical of the radio-dictated pop music, there wasn’t a figure like Parker. For every Roger Waters there was a Syd Barrett, a foil to rein in the madness and have his own madness reined in. Parker is a lone voyager. No one stops him from digging too deep into his psyche or from taking his music to places that the typical listener might not be ready to go. With Innerspeaker, Parker himself played that role, trying to allow the listener to more easily access his music. On Tame Impala’s second record, the fittingly titled Lonerism, he has decided to let the madness run wild.
Parker speaks on this concept openly, and it’s no coincidence that to open the record, he plainly states, “And I know that I’ve got to be above it now / And I know that I can’t let them bring me down / And I’ve got to bide my time as a face in the crowd / And I know that I’ve got to be above it now.” It’s somewhat shocking that the stunning Innerspeaker could ever be considered anyone’s “time biding” period, but there it is, the first words sung on Lonerism. If the statement alone doesn’t suffice to tell the listener they’re in for a different experience with this record, the second that the first huge bass drop of “Be Above It” rattles the speakers—accentuated by flanging buzzsaw synthesizers dancing around the outer limits of the mix—should. It’s certainly a riskier record for Tame Impala, and as is usually the case with people who take risks they feel confident in, it pays off.
Much like the record immediately opens itself up to the listener lyrically, it does so sonically as well. Parker once again enlisted Dave Fridmann for production duties, the man responsible for listeners double-checking release dates on the backs of records for over twenty years. He is known for his warm colors and vintage sounds, and in the case of Kevin Parker, it was like a simple layup for him. The album would have rested comfortably in 1968, with fuzzed-out guitars abound and melodic basslines singing catchy melodies on each song. The biggest difference between Innerspeaker and Lonerism would be Parker’s employment of synthesizers; each song is elevated from the earth on a vessel of aqueous waves of sound, giving the record a more astral feel than its predecessor. The lead single, “Apocalypse Dreams,” is a culmination of the changes the project’s sound has undergone. A driving, punchy rhythm, punctuated by Jay Watson’s bright keyboard strokes lead the track in. Like a budding flower, the track has a palpable tension until just enough sunshine has hit it and it bursts open in slow motion, exposing an amazing array of colors and uplifting pheromones with it. Parker perfectly places the line, “Everything is changing and there’s nothing I can do,” right at the moment when this sonic expansion occurs, bringing an amazing cohesion to the track that is otherwise so complexly varied.
The same could be said for Lonerism itself. Though tied together with strongly unified production and even vibe, the record is nuanced in a way that each listen opens the listener up to a new sound or concept, much like the image of the budding flower that “Apocalypse Dreams” calls to mind. “Mind Mischief” is propelled by loose, infectiously funky bassline—a common thread for the whole of the record—as the guitars sway atop the mix in a way that the drums seem to be tumbling around the speakers, trying to keep them buoyed. Parker’s vocals shine on “Feels Like We’re Only Going Backwards,” a crisp falsetto floating past a rich landscape of synthesizers falling like waterfalls between the mountainous bass and drums. The instrumental language spoken on Lonerism is so dense that the listener can practically reach out and touch it, and as Parker’s voice drifts through the mix, it comes like a dream spoken above an utterly tangible world.
“Elephant” comes as perhaps the biggest surprise of the record; immediately the track darkly marches along with an “Astronomy Domine”-like intensity, being guided by synthesizers firing off, doing battle with one another as the fuzzy bass seems to grind underneath. “Elephant” serves as the straightforward complement to the sprawling psychedelic monument in “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control.” The track serves as a showcase of sorts for the musical concepts displayed throughout Lonerism—complete with a gorgeous, mind-bending instrumental breakdown, with synthesizers squealing over rapid-fire drum fills, giving way to the pop ideals that are ever-present in the songwriting of the record. While Tame Impala is, at its heart, a psychedelic rock band, Parker has keen pop sensibilities that are hard to ignore when listening to Lonerism. Each song has at least some aspect to it that is completely irresistible, even despite the completely irresistible trip to space the record provides.
At the end of the day, that is what makes Tame Impala such a special, stand-out artist in this neo-psychedelic movement. Parker has a tight hold on the loose music that he makes, keeping access roads to their music open to the casual listener, while still providing spellbinding ways for the not-so-casual listener to get lost within his music. It speaks to the depth of his music that, with Lonerism, he set out to make a record that was completely free of the inhibitions he took into the making of Innerspeaker, and not worry so much about letting people in, but the result is something that will probably do exactly the opposite. The way that the transcendental lives alongside the familiar on Lonerism is what will put Tame Impala ahead of the class for years to come.