Monday, July 20, 2015

album review: 'currents' by tame impala

So here's one of the frustrating things about being a music critic who still has a massive backlog - as much as I try, I can't cover everything within the course of a year, and you occasionally miss things or listen to albums out of chronological order. And on the one hand this can be rewarding as you can go back and listen to the classics and hear the musical elements that eventually became influential. But on the other hand, it also shows how some of said elements were further expanded or explored by other groups and you don't end up with the same appreciation of the 'original' article.

Want an example? I originally heard of Tame Impala back in 2012 when they showed up on the collaboration album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, and of the many, many acts that showed up on that album, their contribution wasn't exactly one that stood out all that much and I consequently never really bothered to delve deeper into the group. So when I started getting requests to cover them this year, it was really my first time exploring them in-depth, and I was definitely excited to see what this critically beloved band could deliver...

And man, I was underwhelmed. I'm not saying Tame Impala or either of their first two albums are bad - as a fan of psychedelic rock, they're very listenable - but the hype behind the group baffled me. The instrumentation was sprawling and languid but rarely brought enough driving groove in the percussion, instead smearing over so many of the melodies and vocal lines with egregious electronic effects that often felt like they muffled some real texture. Yes, Lonerism was definitely an improvement, but not being in love with Kevin Parker's vocals or his lyrics, which could definitely tread into exasperating territory, even if it is intentional, I found it hard to really appreciate them as much as I wanted. And it didn't help that the more I listened through Lonerism, the more I just wanted to go back and listen to Sun Structures by Temples, which brought a much more groove-driven, memorable brand of psychedelia to the table.

But seemingly like every indie band these days, Kevin Parker decided to focus more on a synthpop, even disco-inspired approach for his newest release, shifting from more guitars to synthesizers. Which to me was a little concerning, as the noisier guitar elements were the piece I liked the most off of Tame Impala's first two releases. But hey, maybe it'll mean they'll focus more on giving the melodies more presence, so I checked out Currents - what did we get?

This is going to be one of those reviews that'll piss a bunch of you off. Mostly because it's not a definitive positive or negative on Tame Impala or their new sound or their lyrical digressions that definitely raise more than their fair share of uncomfortable questions that don't work nearly as well you'd think. But did it at least translate into good music? Well, like most Tame Impala albums, I can definitely understand the appeal - with this record more than ever - but in a year increasingly crowded with synthpop, it's definitely not an album I feel eager to revisit.

And the first - and probably biggest - reason why is Kevin Parker himself. Now when he made more psychedelic material, it was a little trickier nailing down why his voice didn't really click, but with this album and with a little more clarity, I definitely got it: in his high falsetto range, where he spends the majority of this album, he reminds me way too much of Peter Cetera. You've probably forgotten about him and most of the work of his former band Chicago, but they were chart-topping hitmakers throughout the 70s and 80s, and one of the biggest reasons why much of their easy-listening schlock is borderline unlistenable for me was Cetera's voice. And Kevin Parker might as well be the sequel, a half-nasal croon that has no tightness or punch that comes from the falsetto I like and all of the languid lack of emotional range and soul coming with the falsetto I don't. And just like with Adam Levine of Maroon 5, whenever he tries to swear for impact it comes across smarmy and completely lacking. And to his credit, he does change it up - on 'Past Lives', where his spoken word digression is pitch-shifted down and sounds even worse. Joy.

Fortunately, he's mostly backed up by his melodic composition and most of his production. I'll admit right out of the gate that the basslines and percussion both feel too stiff and clunky for this brand of retro-leaning synthpop, peppered with 70s AM rock, soul, and R&B, especially for a record professing more changes, but from a compositional point of view, Parker has always been a solid writer. The interweaving layers that disintegrate and reform on 'Let It Happen', especially when the chunkier, psychedelic guitars come back in, the meatier rollicking bassline on 'The Less I Know The Better' that features some great subtle melodic interplay in the guitars and keys, the oily cascade of synthesizers on 'Past Life' that transitions through rumbling wobbles into a shimmering chorus, the transition from Ariel Pink-esque chintzy lo-fi rock tones and synths into much cleaner brighter tones with a click, to the gurgling low synth, stalking beat, and a great interlude against the hazy synths on 'New Person, Same Old Mistakes'. Hell, even though the lyrics annoy the hell out of me on 'Cause I'm A Man' - we'll get to it - that bassline against the gleaming 80s R&B-inspired keys makes the song impossible to hate. Granted, my biggest issue with Tame Impala remains the same, and that's their usage of phasing effects on their synths and background textures to warp and contort them. To me, it has always felt incredibly clumsy, an attempt to artificially seal in the natural melodic sound and flow, and when they already overuse reverb, it only further muddies the sound. It's less objectionable here in the confines of synthpop due to the mix being slightly more stripped back, but still, when I compare it to the more natural swell of an act like Lower Dens, it grates on my nerves.

And now we come to the lyrics... and whoo boy, here's where things get tricky. Firstly, while much of the buzz has branded Currents a break-up album, it's not quite true - mostly because Kevin Parker is the one to do the dumping. Feeling a major change coming - which may or may not have been conducted under the influence of nitrous, as implied by the interlude 'Nangs' - he dumps this girl as gently as he can... and not two tracks later, he gets jealous, regrets it, and tries to get her back, all the while coming to terms with the both of them not being perfect and while change is natural and a good thing, too much of it done for its own sake is often disastrous. And of course all of it is a meta-narrative for the album's shift in sound itself, making a parallel to twenty-one pilots' Blurryface this year, and a pretty agreeable one too.

But when you start looking into the details, this record can get insufferable in a hurry. For starters, both 'Yes I'm Changing' and 'Eventually' feel monumentally disingenuous, the sort of 'It's not you, it's me' nonsense that rings as incredibly fake - and yes, I get that was the point, Parker pointed it out himself, but place it in a human context and it doesn't make it any less condescending - saying you're going to get back with her 'eventually' is the definition of stringing someone on, and it's a douchebag move. And it doesn't get much better when he tries to win her back, mostly through a brand of self-deprecation that several have drawn comparisons to the similar work of Father John Misty on I Love You, Honeybear - and hell, on 'Disciples' it actually gets close to a far-less detailed riff on 'The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment'. But the biggest difference comes on 'Cause I'm A Man' and one that makes this record a lot harder to stomach, and it's a matter of responsibility. Sure, Parker prostrates himself and begs for this girl's forgiveness, but he excuses his behaviour with lines like 'because I'm a man, woman' and 'I am aware I'm not in control' - and that's total horseshit, and it paints the sly negging he tries on other tracks in a much worse light as it makes his self-deprecation patently insincere. Josh Tillman's character was definitely an asshole, but not only was he a good lyricist and comic writer with far more lyrical imagination, he played the self-deprecation with a certain anxiousness that betrayed reality. Kevin Parker's croon doesn't have that range, and the writing doesn't do nearly enough to support his rationale, either for the change or for his sudden desire to try and get his ex back. It comes across as capricious and more than a little self-obsessed - and that has worked for Parker before, like on Lonerism where he was dissecting his own introversion. But it doesn't here when there's other people involved, and a larger part of that is the tone: the dumping tracks are gentle, calming affairs that don't match the subject matter at all, and when the self-deprecation reads as hollow 'covering mistakes', I have a much harder time buying his apologies, with only 'Love/Paranoia' coming remotely close to working - it just rings as so insincere to me. It might have run a little stronger if the girl didn't take him back, but nope, the final song seems to imply that she took him back, and that, if anything, rings as the most unbelievable, especially as she already was seeing someone else. Of course, the easy excuse is the meta-narrative about the change of the sound, but that doesn't really work because we don't get that moment where the instrumentation goes through that arc of changing too far and returning to an evolved norm.

In the end... as I said, it's a frustrating listen. Currents isn't really a bad album by the standards of synthpop - sure, it's not doing anything as powerful as Lower Dens or as colourful as twenty-one pilots or as relentlessly fun and poignant as The Wombats, but it's listenable and better than the worst of the genre I've heard this year. But it definitely did not win me over on Tame Impala, and I suspect fans who dug their more grandiose, psychedelic side will not be all that fond of this. For me, it's 6/10 and only recommended if you're more of a fan. For me, though, the currents remain the same: underwhelming.

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