Back when Grateful Dead were known as The Warlocks and played after hours shows in California as part of The Acid Tests, few people could have imagined that the remaining members of The Grateful Dead would be playing five gigantic sold-out gigs this summer. The journeys both The Grateful Dead and their music supplied to the masses were other-worldly, experimental, euphoric. Some of this, of course, can be attributed to the recommended dosage of whichever drug you attach to the term “psychedelic”, but not all of it. Journeys through psych rock can be experienced with or without the use of sensory altering drugs and, sometimes, even more potently without.
Kevin Parker’s been a journeyman ever since I started paying attention to his band, Tame Impala, around the time that the single “Solitude Is Bliss” dropped. Granted I didn’t really take to their debut — Innerspeaker was “too psychedelic” for me at the time — but as Lonerism arrived and adulthood was in full swing, I began to re-listen to Tame Impala’s tracks and noticed a growing trend. Kevin wasn’t singing about what most modern day artists were singing about. Even during the songs where Kevin dove into well-trodden territory, he was doing it with a twist. He was doing it as an admitted introvert.
The journey this psych rock auteur was sharing with us was one of transparent vulnerability.
Many will argue that this idea is not original and many artists have been expressing vulnerability for decades. While true, few male lyricists do and the ones who express this side of themselves are often heralded as “wishy-washy”, “too polished”, “uncool”. So, for me, there was something special about a lyricist who not only was delving into this “uncool” territory whole-heartedly, but was also doing it with a type of music that, in 2010, was pretty much relegated as a has-been genre. Psych rock at the time seemed so soaked in misrepresentation and preconceived notions that, to an untrained eye such as myself, the idea of psych-rock-as-journey was almost completely forgotten.
Enter Currents. Tame Impala’s first truly psych pop album.
Like all great lyricists, the journey Kevin takes us on during Currents is not just about one thing. On the surface it’s about transforming the fear of change into the acceptance of change. Beneath that, it’s detailing the breakup of Kevin with an ex (most likely the girl in question is Melody Prochet of Melody’s Echo Chamber, though I’m sure it’s a tapestry of ex-loves.) Then even further beneath that, it’s delving into Kevin’s experimentation with new genres (ie, disco, r&b, and even *gulp* top 40!) and his fear over how previous fans of Tame Impala will react to this experimentation. Yeah, that’s right, our psych rock auteur— excuse me, psych pop auteur — was prescient enough to include foreshadowing of his future vulnerabilities to get ahead of the hate.
That may seem like an over-simplification of what is, unequivocally, one of the most complicated and fulfilling pop albums that’s debuted in my entire life. There’s so much lushness seeping out of every song, flourishes appearing out of left field, that it’s nearly impossible to catch all the uniqueness of Currents even with half a dozen listens under my belt. Hell, it will probably be impossible for me to do so one hundred listens deep.
What’s so special about this particular album’s journey, however, is exactly what Kevin’s fearful of being mocked for — the experimentation on Currents is breathtaking. Take for example the opening track, “Let It Happen” — about three and a half minutes into the album, you’re caught off guard by something, but you can’t exactly put your finger on it. Is… is the song skipping? It’s impossible (or, well, impossible if you’re listening to an mp3 of the track), but still that lingering feeling remains. The song’s breakdown stems from the sound of a common occurrence we’ve all experienced — that of a skipping CD and, instantly, the track takes on another meaning. The journey’s interrupted, with a bit of nostalgia to boot, and deviates into a dreadful electronic organ performance that let’s us know that Kevin’s mantra ‘let it happen’ is being disrupted. That is, until, the song comes right back, bigger than ever, with Kevin overcoming this nostalgia, overcoming this remembrance of a “Past Life” (which, more on that later), and eventually crooning brightly “maybe I was ready all along.’”
The nearly wordless track “Nangs” and completely instrumental “Gossip” both play roles in the journey, giving us slight moments to catch our breaths in the before-math (“Nangs”) and aftermath (“Gossip”) of Currents’ breakup narrative.
In between those two ditties, “The Moment,”“Yes I’m Changing,” and “Eventually” detail the inception of our protagonist’s plan to break up and lead to the moment where he permanently does so. While Kevin is not necessarily doubting his decision to call the relationship off (he begins “Yes I’m Changing” by telling his lover she’s welcome to join him as long as she doesn’t think his changes are “a crime”), he’s firmly convinced that the breakup will be beneficial for both parties involved (intoning toward the end of “Eventually” that he knows he’ll be happier, and she will be too). It’s the necessary end to the cycle Kevin’s been perpetuating since 2012’s “It Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” only now the relationship’s firmly through.
Simultaneously, these three tracks work at unveiling Kevin’s desire to progress with his career, his want to get beyond the label of psych rock and, particularly, become confident with his exceeding fame. In “Yes I’m Changing,” he admits that he “can’t always hide away, curse indulgence and despise the fame’” Throughout the build up to Currents, Kevin’s been particularly vocal about “Elephant” almost defining their sound (which, to be honest, is inaccurate.) It’s clear his progression musically in between his sophomore release and Currents was to prove that he couldn’t be pigeonholed. He’s succeeded.
After the flash-forward track of “Gossip,” interestingly placed on Currents as a way to show the passage of time, we get a slew of tracks dealing with a common experience: how to handle life after the breakup. “The Less I Know The Better” has a particularly modern feel to it, emphasizing how difficult it is to truly keep out of the loop in the social media age. Whether you want to know about your exes’ moves once you’ve said your peace, it’s nearly impossible not to be privy to tidbits about your significant other during the aftermath. And it doesn’t matter if Kevin, his ex, or Trevor/Heather are the “Superman” mentioned at the end of the track — it’s inconsequential; we’re all going through the motions when it comes to affairs of the heart, and, after the loss of a true love, those motions become more and more tedious.
But “Past Life” — oh, “Past Life” — is the turning point of Currents, both romantically and professionally. By the end of the track, Kevin’s made a huge mistake (reaching out to the past love when he probably shouldn’t have) but simultaneously perseveres past his (perceived) monotonous, boring, same ol’ approach to music making. If the verses represent Kevin before he found Currents’ muse (represented here by a drawl, low-pitched spoken word), the chorus represents Kevin’s complete abandonment of his previous musical approaches. The chorus of “Past Life” may, in fact, be the most gorgeous thing Tame Impala has ever produced, and contrasting it with this dull, boring man’s attempt at connecting with (and probably trying to re-kindle the flame with) an ex-love does an incredible job of connecting these two equally dynamic story threads for one momentous turning point.
[Sidenote: Is it just me, or when the first spoken word chorus ends, does Kevin say “my lover” the first time, followed by feedback, then “Melody—’”very quickly, in reference to Ms. Prochet? Who knows for sure, but it’s a fun little easter egg if so!]
My favorite part about “Past Life” — and, currently, as odd as it may seem, it’s my favorite song on Currents based solely on how it’s used to advance the narrative of this album’s journey — is when Kevin’s first memory of his former lover comes from readjusting his rearview mirror, then — BAM! — the chorus kicks in, that glorious chorus, and we’re transported. You can practically taste that feeling of a moment in time when you were intensely reminded of a former flame. And what, again, reminded Kevin of this past relationship? An adjustment of his rearview mirror.
This moment on Currents is Kevin’s biggest middle finger to any of his past releases he’s probably ever put down on musical record. One of the key moments in Lonerism’s “Elephant” is describing how the character in that narrative pulls mirrors off his Cadillac. Why? “Cause he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back”. Anything could’ve triggered Kevin remembering his ex-love, but the fact that it’s something as specific as a car’s rearview mirror displays a clear connection to this track and, at the same time, a flippant disregard for the character that’s described in the song “Elephant”. Kevin’s not anything like the man from that track, if he ever even was. And “Past Life” is Kevin’s final attempt at setting that record straight: Kevin looks back, goddamnit.
But as “Disciples,” the next track shows, maybe he shouldn’t have. Though this jam’s short, the first half is the most lo-fi moment on the record (so far), harkening back to earlier Tame Impala tracks, which becomes purposefully reminiscent when forty-six seconds in, the song practically POPS and a new, glossy polish has sprayed over the back half. Again, when dissecting the track lyrically, it’s another instance of Kevin looking back and then looking forward and the POP at the forty-six second mark demarcates this transition of time. The first half of “Disciples” details Kevin’s feelings as he was falling for this gal back in the day (over music which sounds like Tame Impala’s earlier sound) and then flash-forwards to Kevin waxing poetic over how, ultimately, the girl definitely changed too, as Kevin predicted, but not in the ways he would’ve hoped for. If the production tricks used in “Past Life” didn’t tell a direct enough narrative about Kevin’s progression toward a poppier, more produced sound, “Disciples” clearly displays that expedition in a linear fashion.
The final four tracks of Currents also deal with reminiscing over the end of a relationship, but they’re all a bit more direct. Kevin’s never made as clear a thesis for his music than the line at the end of the second verse in “‘Cause I’m A Man” — “my weakness is the source of all my pride.’” And it’s true, Kevin’s male vulnerability combined with his music, lyrics, experimentation and overall journey is what makes his discography so different and intriguing. The bridge of “Reality In Motion,” the next track, feels like the climax of Currents. Not only is it the most hybrid track on the album (with the structure and filter over the song feeling very Lonerism while the electronic embellishments are clearly inspired from his musical explorations in Currents), but Kevin sings about wanting to both ‘let go’ and ‘feel alive’, reminiscent of the mission statement from lead track “Let It Happen”.
“Love/Paranoia” details what a lot of introverts deal with in relationships, constantly second guessing their lover’s true intentions. It’s one of the most painfully, heart-wrenching moments Kevin has put to paper, especially when he ends the song describing what feels like a very intimate moment he’s shared with this ex-love and then apologizes, quite sincerely too. It feels like Kevin has maybe, finally, truly put this relationship to rest… and while the final track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” confirms this sentiment, it introduces us to a whole slew of new problems Kevin faces now that he’s actively letting himself change.
Kevin’s not an island. He may want to be, but the biggest lesson from “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” is that his actions have consequences (like I mentioned earlier, he’s already preparing himself for the fan backlash) and that no one ever said the search for your most perfect companion was ever easy. Using a back-and-forth dual chorus arrangement allows for New Kevin to sing along with Old Kevin — New Kevin continues to look for love in all the wrong places while Old Kevin reminds him that these avenues have all been miserably tread before. Not until the end of this track, during the final chorus, does Old Kevin let New Kevin off the hook a little bit (dropping most of his previous criticism in exchange for the singular line “stop thinking that the only option was”, a clear reminder that New Kevin needs to stop looking for love in his “Past Life”.)
It’s also on this song that Kevin predicts this new direction for Tame Impala may be met unfavorably by his most devoted psych rock fans, but they’re not necessarily who he’s making the music for. At Tame Impala’s heart, the music has always been a journey for the loner. And, in that regard, for Kevin. Previous albums have included track titles like “Solitude Is Bliss” and “Why Won’t They Talk To Me,” not to mention his sophomore album was titled Lonerism. But Kevin’s not breaking boundaries on Currents solely because he wants fame (although part of that is there, and is even self-criticized here when he says “I know that you think it’s fake, maybe fake’s what I like”), he’s breaking boundaries because creating new sounds and textures, for him, is what he’s come to enjoy in life. It’s his passion. In a very recent interview with Consequence of Sound, Kevin even said as much: “when I’m recording a song, just freshly thought of the melody, and I’m recording this section of music that I’m really excited about — that part, I’m doing for me, 100 percent.”
Even if every relationship won’t end well, at least the outcome of this relationship as described on Currents was a realization that, musically and professionally, he’s moving on, lavishing in new influences (read up on his experience listening to the Bee Gees on shrooms, how he has a whole album ready for Kyle Minogue, or, better yet, his recent “comparison” of The Beatles to Britney Spears), and accepting change.
Because at the center of every journey, every story, is change. Our protagonist changes. The lesson Currents tries to drill into our skulls is one of the simplest, perhaps banal to some, but in the right hands (such as Kevin’s) simultaneously sublime, lessons there is:
Let it happen.
Kevin’s gonna attempt this avenue for a while. I plan to follow his lead.
Who knows? Maybe I was ready all along.