by Jericho Cerrona
Let's talk about seizing the pop zeitgeist, for a moment, shall we? Kevin Parker, the mastermind behind psych-rockers Tame Impala certainly knows how these things work; the short-lived fads, the careening genre burnouts, the inability to seize upon a cultural moment for more than a day's worth of social media clicks. Tame Impala's 2010 debut Innerspeaker; with its fuzzed-out guitars and trippy take on 60s psychedelia, immediately conjured Beatles comparisons and made Parker into something of a daft retro revivalist. In the past few years, the psych-rock nostalgia craze has fallen away somewhat (although there are still bands doing this kind of thing with religious-like fervor), which made 2012's Lonerism such a fascinating corrective. Playing like prog-pop in the Todd Rundgren mold, the album was critically hailed for it's drug-induced atmospheric take on pop music, but seemed to alienate some who felt Parker and company were moving away from the blissful accessibility of their debut into the realm of the difficult sophomore slump. For all it's flaws, Lonerism remains the band's most consistently rewarding album to date, taking those early Beatles comparisons and running away with them into the kind of Yellow Submarine-inspired lunacy that only perma-fried hippies could appreciate. The general mantra seemed to be just dig it, man, which should have paved the way for Tame Impala's latest bizarro psych-pop opus. Instead, Currents trades in the hazy fumes of the 60s counterculture for the buzzing synths and warbly pop of the moment, ala Daft Punk, Todd Terje, and James Murphy, et al.
The attempt to distance oneself from certain indie genre trappings is understandable, but the trajectory Parker chooses here is entirely predictable, especially given the current pop zeitgeist. Nearly every artist striving for commercial and critical relevance who began in a fog of post-punk or ragged underground rock seems to think that making a so-called "dance album" is the way to go, and the same holds true here. Of course, Tame Impala haven't made the kind of club-ready, danceable sell-out many have feared, but that still doesn't mean the new direction impresses beyond surface pleasures. Opener "Let It Happen" initially sounds like pure vanilla disco before morphing into synth-fueled psych; complete with finger snaps, warbly analog keyboards, and start-stop glitches. Of course, Parker layers his vocals with vocoder effects and instead of guitars, we get driving synthesizers. On "Nangs", Parker experiments with hazy R & B beats and (gulp) post-"Chillwave" textures, but the whole thing sounds a lot like the kind of retro appropriation Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi were banging out circa 2010. Perhaps expecting an inevitable backlash, Parker adds in doses of self-deprecation on songs like "New Person, Same Old Mistakes", where he flippantly croons I know that you think it's fake/ Maybe fake's what I like/ Point is I have the right. It's almost as if he understands that many will find his new sonic muse a drag, and therefore gets in his digs before anyone else can. Still, there's something lazy about this approach, which extends not only to Parker's snooze-inducing vocal style, but also to the songwriting aesthetic overall.
If Tame Impala's previous work relied on huge-sounding guitars, vintage synths, and melodic psychedelic freak-outs, then Currents makes a case for Parker as multitasking producer with a knack for AM soft rock noodling. In a sense, he's gone the route of Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson, whose last album Multi-Love was impressive in part because of the genuine emotion layered underneath all of the odd soulfulness. Like Multi-Love, Currents is a heartbreak record, detailing Parker's breakup with Melody Prochet of the band Melody's Echo Chamber, but it lacks the emotional clarity and thematic depth of Nielson's work. Parker is very skilled at incorporating wonky 70s pop and 80s funk stylings into a relaxed, chilled-out mood, but less adept at extrapolating his feelings into a coherent narrative. Therefore, the album works best in parts rather than as a unified whole. When Parker hits on something interesting, like "Past Life", which contains a memorable keyboard motif, warbled vocals, and bong-hit R & B-inflected finger snapping, he quickly abandons it. Ditto for "Disciples", which sounds a lot like the kind of dancey avant-pop Ariel Pink dabbles in, but the song lasts less than two minutes. In other words, Currents is pleasurable in the kind of laconic, 70s electropop way Parker clearly intends, but it ultimately lacks rough edges that would have made the foray into this type of retro-minded pop intriguing. Call it the curse of pop zeitgeist-chasing or simply a case of stunted growth, but either way, it's time to mourn the death of guitars and embrace white guy disco moves.