Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker has revealed himself to be one of those mad scientists of music. Like Brian Wilson or Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, he's reached a point where he's no longer constrained by the limits of the rock band format. Listening to Tame Impala's third album Currents, one can easily picture Parker holed up in the studio, labouring over every sound in pursuit of his singular vision, until the studio becomes a new instrument unto itself.
This is immediately apparent on the album's sprawling eight-minute opening track "Let it Happen," which is a mellow psych-rock number structured like a house track. The morse code guitar line weaves through the track, the drums fade and reappear in the fog of filters and organ-like synths and voice pads float in the background behind Parker's languid falsetto. In the song's middle section, it performs several jarring repetitions, isolating certain beats and repeating them in a way it would be impossible for any flesh-and-blood band to do.
Throughout, the backbeat pounds away. It's refreshing the way Parker has toned down some of the more excessive tendencies of his previous work. Where Tame Impala's 2012 album Lonerism tended to scatter in all directions to the point of distraction, Currents pares back the melodic elements. Because of this, the songs are able to breathe more than ever before. The single "'Cause I'm a Man" is testament to this. It's a lush, crystalline pop song with a strong undercurrent of sorrow. Before that song's release, it was hard to imagine that Parker could make something this focused without losing his essential sound, though previous highlights such as 2012's "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" suggested it.
Parker's voice still bears an uncanny resemblance to mid-60's John Lennon, before his throat was torn apart by post-Beatles anguish. The way he sings and his compositions also owe a lot to Lennon's psychedelic exploration - the tape loops and back masking on The Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever" especially come to mind. This is no second-rate knock-off, though. Even the sub-two-minute sketches like "Nangs" and "Disciples" feel like fully formed pieces, so dynamic is Parker's restless style of composition.
Currents is not inspired by the 60's, though, and has more in common with 1980's alternative pop groups like XTC and Prefab Sprout. The more pop-based approach is likely to turn off many fans of Tame Impala's more rock-oriented work, but if given a chance it's pretty impressive stuff. The one-two punch of "The Moment" and "Yes, I'm Changing" takes something swinging, almost jazzy, including handclaps, fingersnaps, and some gentle electric piano and filters it through Parker's grand vision, turning the songs into luscious vistas of sound.
On the lyrical side, it's business as usual for maestro Parker - heartbreak and loneliness pepper the lyrics which are easier to make out than ever before. "Eventually" picks up the volume somewhat - and just in time after a pretty but sleepy opening run - and features some of the strongest imagery on the album. "Wish I could turn you back into a stranger / 'Cause if I was never in your life / You wouldn't have to change this," over downcast synths before a ray of sun breaks through on the chorus - "But I know that I'll be happier / And I know you will too."
With Currents, Parker has found a way to make a record that is varied and interesting - where each song is capable of standing on its own - but keep everything flowing and consistent. Previous Tame Impala albums often tended to blur together, but this one is sharp and defined. "The Less I Know the Better" toys with funk and "Past Life" with R&B of the quiet storm variety (including thunderous bass textures), but keeps all of it within the sphere of the Tame Impala that is so adored.
Five years ago, likely no one expected Tame Impala would end up here, and no one knows where the project will fly off to next. Currents is generous, dynamic and textural like the best of Tame Impala's previous music, but also full of engaging hooks and riffs. With this album, Kevin Parker has proven that there's more to his style than just layers of phasers and other effects; There's a real sense of exploration, discovery and feeling to this album that makes it an absolute triumph. As the squelchy bass and fluttering keys of the gorgeous "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" close the record, you'll find yourself going back to the beginning to start all over again.
Currents is out CD, vinyl and digital formats on Friday July 17.