Tame Impala

Modular Recordings, 2012


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One thing about writing music reviews—once friends and family know you’re doing it, the stream of recommendations never stops. As cool as a lot of the stuff is that people close to me draw my attention to, though, I’m often left curious: what was it about this music that convinced someone I might like it? In many cases it’s easy to tell; in others, it requires searching for clues.

Tame Impala made a fairly big splash with Lonerism back in 2012, but the spray never reached me. I remember listening to a snippet of this sprawling, trippy, yet densely-arranged album and thinking “Huh. Well… that’s odd.” It reminded me a bit of Transcendence in its squirrelly tunefulness, but not enough to pull me in at the time. That said, when someone who’s been close to you for decades keeps recommending an album to you, a full listen is required at some point, both because it’s the right thing to do and because first impressions are notoriously inaccurate.

After three or four complete circuits through Lonerism I can now report with confidence that, well… it’s odd.

Tame Impala is the moniker of one-man band Kevin Parker, who makes every noise on the album other than the piano and keys played by Jay Watson on the two tracks he co-wrote with Parker (“Apocalypse Dreams” and “Elephant,” two of the stronger and more focused numbers on the album). Parker’s mad-scientist-locked-in-the-studio approach results in intricate yet consistently off-kilter tracks full of strange tones, slowed down or sped up rhythm sections, and serial sonic left turns, topped by echo-drenched lead vocals that reek of 1972 (for this writer, a compliment). As others have suggested, Parker’s sound owes debts to Todd Rundgren and Pink Floyd, though in the end he doesn’t sound much like either.

What Lonerism in fact sounds a little bit like—ah-hah, first clue!—is if the Beatles had decided after Sgt. Pepper’s to make “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” their stepping-off point for everything that followed. It doesn’t hurt—ah-hah, another clue!—that Parker’s vocals sound eerily like White Album-era John Lennon at times; in fact, it sometimes feels like the weirder a track gets, the more obvious the resemblance.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And these songs are plenty weird.

The lyrics are a series of surreal vignettes about either alienation, or romantic longing, or both at once within the confines of a crumbling relationship. So, cheery stuff. That sense of existential dread is only heightened by the otherworldly strangeness of the arrangements, in which every instrument—guitar, bass, drums, and synths—feels as if it’s been twisted and distorted like sonic taffy. (And indeed, the album was mixed with typical flair by Dave Fridmann of Flaming Lips fame.)

But what does it sound like, you ask? Everything and nothing you’ve ever heard, all at once. On opener “Be Above It,” the hypnotic, double-time jackhammer drums (real acoustic ones just like the gods of music intended) and out-of-breath vocals suggest a man in a footrace with his own sanity. Second track “Enders Toi” features an alternately dreamy and muscular synth line snaking up and down and in circles around the rhythmic nucleus of the song. Then “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Mind Mischief” come along to firmly establish Parker’s Beatles fetish, sounding like nothing so much as an Abbey Road homage created in the dark, on acid. My notes from this part of the listen include: “If light shining through a kaleidoscope made noise, it might sound a little like this.”

Onward. “Music To Walk Home By” shambles along riding a bright melody until a repeating guitar riff ascends out of the sonic whirlpool; it’s just the sort of intriguing dynamics that are Parker’s specialty. The middle section of the album is a blurry haze of songs about things crumbling around our narrator, culminating in the especially trippy, Floyd-adjacent layers of psychedelic texture that constitute the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth minutes of “Keep On Lying.”

The aforementioned “Elephant” feels like a surrealist ELO number—Jeff Lynne being the world’s biggest Beatles fan—a tune with groove and atmosphere to spare, even if the lyric feels even more detached from reality than usual. Then “She Just Won’t Believe Me” lasts 57 seconds, two lines and a half-dozen synth chords—okayyy. The elaborately titled “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” presents a bout of particularly inspired and tuneful oddness, including the part where the song starts over at around 5:20. Closer “Sun’s Coming Up” indeed feels like the first light of morning after an apocalyptic night, just Parker and his plaintive piano. “I’ll disconnect completely, see how that works out” he sings, and then at 2:45 in the song has a nervous breakdown and shifts to a symphony of flanged-out, distorted electric guitar chords for the last 2:30.

After a while enveloped in this stuff, you’re left trying to remember what normal music sounds like, because Lonerism constructs an alternate universe where the rules of gravity and physics no longer apply. I’m all for originality and experimentation, but honestly, too much of this feels less like an avant-garde approach to constructing a song than just plain old fucking around. And yet, there’s no denying the moments of sublime melodic beauty that surface from time to time.

It’s easy to admire Lonerism’s inventiveness, and in its limited way, it’s brilliant, a fully realized musical vision around the theme of alienation. My main issue with it may be as much with that theme as with its execution; Lonerism does not emotionally connect, which may be exactly Parker’s intention. The problem for this member of the audience is that the primary reason I listen to music is for that sense of emotional connection. For all Tame Impala’s cleverness and originality, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel the need to listen to this album again.

Rating: B

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