Are Tame Impala The Last Great Rock Band?
As rock culture stagnates, one of its best bands keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Fremantle is an Australian surf town about 10 miles from the city of Perth. It’s where Kevin Parker, the man behind Tame Impala, is from. When I traveled there a few years ago to write a cover story on his band for this magazine, Parker was living in a foggy stasis. He’d completed 2012’s Lonerism, the band’s sophomore record, and was preparing to embark on a world tour that would cement Tame Impala’s place as a legitimately massive rock band—the only one left of its kind, maybe.
Back then, I wasn’t sure if Tame Impala were even going to cross over. I thought they were great, and so did a lot of other people—but why? Did they possess a certain star quality that could elevate them beyond playing second-tier stages at the same nine music festivals for eternity? I didn’t realize until I was in the basement of a hotel where the Tame Impala offshoot band Pond was playing that, yes, they did. Parker, who doesn’t play in that project, looked on from the audience. When the show ended there was hushed whispering in the crowd: “Is that Kevin Parker?” He looked confused, and then a little mortified. He had become a celebrity in his own town.
To be clear, Tame Impala is not actually the last rock band in the world, but it sometimes feels that way. This is partially due to their narrative: a bunch of long-haired dudes from a middle-of-nowhere beach town who went global after exploring how it feels to be completely lost inside your own head. They’re not overly reverent of rock’s analog past the way Jack White or The Black Keys are, and they’re not trying to latch onto a semi-mythical folk world where everyone wears bad hats, like Mumford & Sons. Parker’s not playing dingy lo-fi in his garage, revitalizing emo, or downplaying his talent to cultivate some sort of nostalgic slacker vibe. He is simply great at writing songs that turn the chaos of his emotions into catchy mantras. This is the guy who, on the hypnotic Lonerism single “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” crafted a hit about how it sucks to get your hopes up. Eventually, that song got so big that Kendrick Lamar remixed it.
Currents could have been one of those grandiose, confounding almost-failures. It’s not a failure, though. Not even a little bit.
After Lonerism, Parker became a bonafide star, the kind who gets asked to record multiple tracks on Mark Ronson’s star-packed Uptown Special. If he tried to expand on that formula in some way, I was ready for it to flop. Tame Impala’s most recent LP, Currents, could have been that misstep. It’s a rock record with very few moments that read as rock, and certainly the biggest deviation from the John-Lennon-on-acid vibe they had going for a while. It could have been one of those grandiose, confounding almost-failures, the kind that are dug up and re-evaluated decades later. (Think about how Devendra Banhart brought David Crosby’s initially maligned If I Could Only Remember My Name back into the conversation in the aughts, turning it into a touchstone for a new generation of blazed-out freak-folkers.)
Currents is not a failure, though. Not even a little bit. While the song structures are similar to the band’s past releases, with long buildups that lead to great psychedelic bursts, it’s also much more electronic-based, showcasing enlarged arrangements and a soulful brand of synth wizardry that’s as palatable for the EDM generation as it is for psych-rock weirdos. Tame Impala stretched itself to make the most ambitious work possible, and it worked. Even if it had flopped, it wouldn’t have been a career-ender, and the same is true for whatever they do next. Tame Impala has room to screw up. We trust them now, and that’s a pretty good sign.