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Review: Tame Impala's Currents is a journey to the center of a single mind

Kevin Parker's masterful new album ditches genre and goes full loner

Matt Sav

Kevin Parker has always been fascinated with the idea of being alone: how it changes your behavior, how it alters your experience, how other people can compromise the unique euphoria you can find through truly understanding yourself. One of the best songs on Innerspeaker, his 2010 breakout full-length, was called "Solitude Is Bliss"; two years later, he asked "Why Won’t They Talk to Me?" only to conclude it wasn’t worth the trouble, and did so in the middle of an album called Lonerism. ("But I don’t even care about it anyway / I wouldn’t listen to a word any of them say.")

As the sole creative force behind Tame Impala, Parker’s interest in solitude is deeper than lyrical fancy. He embodies it, writing, recording, and producing all of the music himself. (It's brought to life with the help of a touring band.) Spending time with Currents, his magnificent third album, is like hopping into an isolation chamber he designed. This is music that wants to be untethered from everything, whether that’s relationships with other people, stylistic context, or even any sense of momentum. It’s a meditation on growth and memory, one that floats in your headphones like a body in warm salt water. And it doesn’t really sound like anything else, to its credit: not pop, not rock, just one man’s singular sonic vision.

"Elephant" was so catchy it had you considering a BlackBerry purchase

Parker’s talent and potential has been evident for a long time, but that doesn’t mean this leap forward was predictable. When Innerspeaker was released in 2010, it had a clear place in a long-standing musical tradition. Parker was making psych rock — playful and curious and bright, sure, but nothing revelatory. He also sounded very much like John Lennon, and if you had a nickel for every time a writer has mentioned that fact, you could afford to buy the album. Lonerism came out two years later, and while it was a significant leap in terms of skill level, it wasn’t a huge artistic change for Parker. "Elephant" may have been so catchy it actually had you considering a BlackBerry purchase, but it wasn’t representative of a paradigm shift.

Currents takes those ideas about Parker’s proper place with respect to genre and wastes no time blowing them to smithereens. Its opener and lead single, "Let It Happen," is an 8-minute synth odyssey with a melody made for festival hippie dance circles, swooping, looping electronic orchestration, and about half a minute’s worth of guitars — and it’s one of the most familiar songs on the record, if only for that brief passage. I’ve heard Currents described as Parker’s great pop maneuver, but I’m not struck by its stickiness as much as by its omnivorousness: soul, funk, power-pop, ambient music, and non-Western composition are all in play here. I’m also hesitant to describe this album as some large pop departure for Parker because of the diminishment that foists on his earlier writing; he was working within a tighter set of aesthetic constraints, but he’s always been able to write a fine melody.

If it's complicated, it's only as complicated as one person's mind

When you sound like everything, you’re not beholden to expectations — and that’s the space Parker finds himself in now, sculpting songs that are idiosyncratic and peculiar. Take "Past Life," which moves from a corroded spoken word section to a vacuum chamber choral section to dreamy, dewy R&B and back through in under 4 minutes. This is a minor track, all things considered, but it’s one that still manages to display an impressive flexibility and inventiveness. If it’s complicated, it’s only as complicated as one person’s mind. That’s another element of Parker’s grand loneliness: he’s never felt like more of an auteur than on Currents, an album that wears its studio polish and impeccable construction like a signature. Innerspeaker and Lonerism were entirely Parker’s too, but they were warm and energetic, with recognizable pieces; it was easy to understand how they’d come together in a live setting. Currents sounds like Parker conducting a personal army of single-purpose musical droids, and in its most precise and intricate moments — like the climax of highlight "Yes I’m Changing," in which delicate organ and harpsichord melodies emerge and interlock with the sounds of street traffic and blocky keyboard tones — I find it very difficult to imagine any ensemble of humans making enough noise to bring it to life. It’s a man alone at the boards, building little palaces of sound.

There’s no question those palaces are built for one. Currents is a break-up album, but it’s not the vindictive or regretful statement you might expect from an album with that label. It’s preoccupied with self-examination and existential change. It’s rare for an album shaped by a relationship to lean so heavily on observation rather than judgment. When Parker judges at all, he mostly saves it for himself, like on ballooning ballad "Eventually." If that wasn’t enough, there’s the stunning "‘Cause I’m a Man," where Parker breaks down the toxic masculinity that’s made him a terrible partner with a floating, tender falsetto. (Maybe you think he’s just using it as an excuse, in which case the song is cast in an even more pathetic light.) Parker’s not perfect, and he might not even achieve any meaningful change — "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" is not a promising title — but he’s trying, and Currents documents that tough, painful sort of self-assessment.

Currents makes you want to seek out your own solitude

Lonerism was an active album, and I spent a lot of time with it just walking around and letting it wrap itself around the scenery. (It also contains a song called "Music to Walk Home By," so, you know — the power of suggestion.) Currents, on the other hand, it makes me want to sit alone in the dark and get lost in the depths of its arrangements. That’s a testament to the power and specificity with which this album renders solitude: it makes you want to seek it out yourself.