Depending on who you ask, Kevin Parker is the world’s greatest infinity scarf model, a chill hookboy for Mark Ronson’s swampiest funk-you-up whims, or an obsessive creator anointed The Future Of Psychdelia by the music press as of this week. It’s hard to believe one human being can be all three, but with the release of Tame Impala’s Currents, the 29-year-old Australian musician, who’s almost solely behind the deceptively popular band’s music, makes the merger of Boomer rock and electronic pop look as effortless as his accessory of choice.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, the terms “rock” and “pop” were essentially synonymous; rock ‘n’ roll was pop music. As time passed, though, there was a schism between what began to be called pop music — melodic, catchy, lightweight — and a harder-edged strain of music that retained the name “rock ‘n’ roll,” and was increasingly taken more seriously by critics. Some bands — The Beatles, for instance — managed to bridge the widening chasm, but as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, most bands fell on one side or the other.
At first, both used the guitar/bass/drums formula, but the advent of electronic instrumentation — which became synonymous with disco and, later, synthpop — widened the stylistic divide further. Not everyone (especially the forward-thinkers like Prince) bought into a binary that suggested guitar music was inherently artistically superior, but the two forms were rarely reconciled, and when they were, it was noteworthy enough to be news (Eddie Van Halen playing guitar on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller, for example.)
Through it all, rockism was — until several years ago — the dominant critical tone for evaluating popular music, despite the rise of poptimism (and the associated internet fights about which ideology was superior.) As recently as a year or two ago, the mainstream’s most beloved rock frontmen — Dave Grohl, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler — were still publicly dissing people who make music on computers. To steal a phrase from Tame Impala, it felt like we were only going backwards.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Tame Impala somehow overcomes all that to make something that will appeal to both hardcore album rockists and the Top 40 listeners who may have embraced his high croon on Ronson’s Uptown Funk earlier this year. Nevertheless, Currents, the band’s third LP since 2010, is most definitely an album for people who like rock music, but care about music not involving guitars as well.
Throughout the record, Parker lovingly mixes historically disparate sounds — a warped psych harpsichord or organ gets thrown in with a Soul Train boogie, a T. Rex riff, a space-age synth, Parker’s John Lennon-esque vocals, and a highly filtered trip-hop drum beat. The funny thing is, many of these sounds were being pioneered concurrently throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Decades removed, Parker easily tears off the labels and considers them one and the same.
It’s not only the music that recalls the past: the mantra-making aspect of pop music has always been part of Parker’s lyrical bag of tricks, from Innerspeaker‘s needlepoint-ready “Solitude Is Bliss” to Lonerism’s advice to “Be Above It” to Currents’ urging to “Let It Happen,” man. Parker narrowly escapes the negative connotations that can accompany these kinds of hippie/“wellness” platitudes, instead taking on the role of the slightly fucked-up guru (as opposed to the massively fucked-up one, i.e. the man child).
Currents is definitely an album where its creator is atoning for missteps (romantic and otherwise) and ultimately trying to level up in life. He’s an active participant in that journey right now, which lends a sense of stakes to an album that could otherwise be considered overly self-involved. “They say people never change, but that’s bullshit,” Parker declares on the 10cc sparkle of “Yes, I’m Changing.” “There’s a world out there, it’s calling my name/ And it’s calling yours too,” he says later, showing that even when it’s about him, it’s universal too.
“Eventually” is the Eternal Sunshine of psych-pop, and though the song doesn’t move beyond asserting future happiness, musically the song builds as steadily as an EDM banger waiting for the drop — only it’s far more subtle. Generally speaking, Parker is bold but nimble. On “Let It Happen,” the seven and a half-minute album opener you’ll find yourself inexplicably playing on repeat, he’ll place a sweeping symphony underneath a loop that’s meant to sound like the song is skipping, then seamlessly shift the speed back into overdrive and toss out a ZZ Top riff that’ll make ’em wiggle like his name’s Jason Derulo.
Even the stuff that doesn’t work on Currents quickly reverses its path, as each song does, multiple times. “Past Life” is part bass-heavy intergalactic funk, part spoken word monologue about running into a former “It’s Complicated” at the dry cleaner, in which he sounds like, to quote SPIN, “Marvin the Paranoid Android as an anonymous talking head on a late-’90s crime show — with a Perth accent.” You could call the whole thing self indulgent, but the most ridiculous part is that half the song (the funk rocketship bit) genuinely rules.
I’d like to say that Tame Impala represents a musical future where our parent’s music is as respected as our own, or at least there’s none of that futile friction that divides music fans across generational lines. That would be giving Parker, who admittedly seems pretty humble, too much credit. What I can asset is that Currents is one of the most meticulously constructed musical rabbitholes to fall down this year. Just keep an open mind.