How Tame Impala Taught Me to Love Pop Music

"New Person, Same Old Mistakes" was covered by Rihanna, and he's since collaborated with the likes of  Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson and Travis Scott — the kinds of artists I probably would have sneered at before I fell in love with Currents.
Tame Impala
Tame Impala Photo by Neil Krug
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Though Tame Impala has slowly turned into an SNL-playing, Coachella-headlining force of nature, I first knew the band as a critically acclaimed psych-rock group out of Australia with a cult following. Some fans fawn over frontman/mastermind Kevin Parker like he's a sound-designing demigod and fetishize his gear and production style. I'll admit it: I'm one of them.

The band's first two studio albums — Innerspeaker (2010) and Lonerism (2012) — totally blew my mind. I was drawn in by the sound palette of '60s psychedelia and hooked by Parker's slivery, Lennonesque vocals. High-end synthesizers sizzle, tube amps crunch, and woozy effects are dialed up to 11. Applying an electronic music producer's layer-by-layer approach, Parker adds and subtracts from dense walls of sound for dynamic changes both subtle and dramatic. Along with lyrical themes of social isolation, it all makes for great headphone music.

Then I saw Tame Impala in concert for the first of several times, and Parker's affinity for trance and dance music became even more apparent. The live versions of the head-nodding “Half Full Glass of Wine” and relentlessly psychedelic “Be Above It” built into brain-frying arpeggiations that repeat forever — rave-like stuff, except played with rock instruments. It reinforced what I already knew: Tame Impala was everything I liked about modern rock, backward-sounding and forward-facing, with a clear emphasis on fat tones, immersive soundscapes, and loud-as-hell drums.

But as Tame Impala's first show in Miami approaches, I'm not thinking about rock 'n' roll. I'm reflecting on how the band's third album, Currents (2015), helped me view pop music in a whole new light — eventually.

The conspicuous absence of guitars on Currents was initially disappointing for a tone enthusiast such as myself, and so was the new reference material. "Elephant," the festival-stomping banger off Lonerism and one of Tame Impala's most successful singles, is a basic blues shuffle given the Syd Barrett treatment. On Currents, however, Floyd and Zeppelin are discarded in favor of Michael Jackson and the Bee Gees. As a fan of fuzzy guitar music, I was aghast: One of my favorite rock artists had gone pop.
In an interview with the Guardian, Parker described the moment he decided to abandon Tame Impala's psych-rock sound. “I was in L.A. a few years ago, and for some reason we’d taken mushrooms — it must have been the end of our tour,” he said. “I was coked up as well, and a friend was driving us around L.A. in this old sedan. He was playing the Bee Gees, and it had the most profound emotional effect. I’m getting butterflies just thinking about it. I was listening to "Staying Alive," a song I’ve heard all my life. At that moment, it had this really emotive, melancholy feel to it. The beat felt overwhelmingly strong and, at that moment, it sounded pretty psychedelic. It moved me, and that’s what I always want out of psych music. I want it to transport me.”

He seems to address this experience specifically on "Yes I'm Changing," the first of two gut punches that make up the emotional centerpiece of Currents, along with the titanic breakup song "Eventually." He sings, "I was raging, it was late/In the world my demons cultivate/I felt the strangest emotion but it wasn't hate, for once."

Parker reportedly came to believe he'd been limiting himself to what he thought was cool, or what people like me thought was cool. So he bought a giant synthesizer workstation and set about making a Justin Timberlake-style synth-pop album, knowing that some fans would be turned off by this direction. He says as much on the sleeper festival anthem "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," when he sings, "I can just hear them now/How could you let us down?" He is ultimately unapologetic for shifting artistic tastes, however: "I know you don't think it's right/I know that you think it's fake/Maybe fake's what I like."

Moving on from Tame Impala's old style served as a brilliant analogy for a relationship drifting apart, and he interweaves the two themes throughout the album. As it happened, I was in such a relationship during the summer of 2015, and the lyrics in "Yes I'm Changing" spoke directly to my soul during the breakup: "They say people never change/But that's bullshit, they do." After an obsessive period of listening to Currents almost exclusively, I came to appreciate the killer bass-work on songs such as "Less I Know the Better" more than the lost guitars. I also respected that the album isn't as densely layered as its forebears. Particularly on the seven-minute neo-disco opener “Let It Happen," the instrumentals are given more space to breathe, with the vocals placed front and center.

Parker has since taken an even deeper dive into pop music. "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" was covered by Rihanna, and he's collaborated with the likes of Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, and Travis Scott — the kinds of artists I probably would have sneered at before Currents became a landmark album in my own musical journey. Thanks to Parker's transformation, I've come to admire the extreme level of precision and care that goes into producing a squeaky-clean pop record, versus the fuzzy-around-the-edges aesthetic I've always thought of as, you know, cool.

Tame Impala's fourth album is due out sometime this year. Based on two recent singles, "Patience" and "Borderline," the guitar-heavy Tame Impala of old looks increasingly small in the rearview mirror. But that's OK, at least for me, because getting into new kinds of music is like embracing new versions of yourself. If you don't think it's a crime, you can come along.

Tame Impala. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; Tickets cost $46 to $59.50.
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