Influences can be a hard thing to pin down for some artists. Tame Impala, it’s safe to say, are not one of those artists. Since their 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, Kevin Parker’s project has been consistently compared to various artists from the late ‘60s, some positively and some not. Upon hearing them, it’s hard not to draw the same connection—after all, Parker’s voice sounds uncannily like that of John Lennon, and they clearly owe a lot to that era’s psych-rock giants—but at the same time, more than a little unfair. Make no mistake, Tame Impala isn’t just some throwback act recycling the sounds of the past; rather, they’re taking these sounds and reshaping them into something, if not entirely new, then certainly unique enough to justify its existence today.
Granted, it’s been something of a work in progress. Innerspeaker wore its inspiration on its sleeve—hardly to its detriment, but it seems likely that if Parker had stayed on that path, he’d now be heading a cover band in all but name. Fortunately, 2012’s Lonerism proves there’s more to Tame Impala than the sum of its influences. Not only that, but it proves the band isn’t afraid to progress down their own path, untethered to the trajectories of their predecessors. The album is poppier, less guitar-driven, and more varied sonically—basically, improving on their debut in just about every way.
From the very first track, it should be obvious that Tame Impala are moving in a more experimental direction; with its whispering woven into the rhythm track, heady pulses of guitar, and Parker’s echoing, far-off vocal melody, “Be Above It” is the sound of a band coming into its own. In three and a half minutes, it conveys all the breathless awe “Runway, Houses, City, Clouds” took seven to achieve, and promptly continues its ascent. After two more, similarly massive-sounding tracks, “Mind Mischief” brings things back to earth with its bouncy lead riff, and signals a turn towards the catchier side of psychedelic pop. From here through “Elephant”, Tame Impala crank out one great melody after another. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is a particular standout in this category—joking plagiarism accusations aside, it’s probably the best pop song Kevin Parker’s ever written.
To be sure, Lonerism takes an established style of music and does it well. But where this album really shines is in how Parker blends together more traditional psychedelic instrumentation with electronics. Look at the way “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” sputters colorfully back and forth between guitar and synth, or the swirling textures that underpin the majesty of “Endors Toi”. It’s psychedelia for the 21st Century, effortlessly applying the tricks of the past and bolstering them with some modern innovations. Moments like the bubbling chatter beneath “Keep On Lying” seem very much like updates on the classic formula (“Tomorrow Never Knows” in particular casts a long shadow over Tame Impala’s work).
Parker’s lyrics largely remain on the same page as previous projects—song titles like “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” make that abundantly clear—but he’s returning to these themes with greater dexterity and skill than ever. “Mind Mischief” and “Elephant” reveal the kind of playfulness only hinted at before, and on the flip side, “Sun’s Coming Up” showcases a level of pathos largely absent from Innerspeaker. There’s basically nothing in the way of psychedelic imagery here; Tame Impala’s lyrics always stay grounded, even if the music doesn’t. And that’s really the crux of Lonerism’s appeal (emotionally, anyway): it feels like genuine headspace music, blending together the mundane and the majestic.
Tame Impala are not an innovative band in the same way as, say, Animal Collective: they’re not breaking entirely new ground, nor are they overtly experimental. What they are doing is pushing pre-existing boundaries—taking the psychedelic soundscapes of yore and reimagining them as performed today. Beyond that, they’re an incredibly catchy band; songs like “Elephant” get lodged in your head instantly, without feeling constrained by the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure—quite an achievement for any band. Kevin Parker’s songs feel genuinely organic in their progression—a bit of a cliché, to be sure, but their incredibly rich production and colorful instrumentation makes the description feel (for once) justified. All of this was true on Innerspeaker, of course, but praising it often felt like simply praising its influences. Lonerism has no such problem; it can stand comfortably alongside any of the late-‘60s albums Tame Impala draws so much inspiration from. Indeed, it adds the personal component many of those albums eschewed in favor of sheer oddity. The album has all the detail and emotional intimacy of headphone music, but at the same time, its sprawl and beauty demand to be played out loud. As far as music to walk home by goes, you’d be hard-pressed to find better.
Essential Listening: Apocalypse Dreams, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards, Keep On Lying