Tame Impala kick in to “Let It Happen,” the best song they have ever written, in front of hundreds of college stoners and wizened MGMT fans at Governors Ball earlier this summer. Kevin Parker is handsome and shoeless, like a poster boy for H&M’s messianic chic campaign. He wears a plain white t-shirt and a navy blue infinity scarf that hangs just above his beautiful Rickenbacker 330 Jetglo guitar.
The Rickenbacker has up until this point been one of Parker’s favorite guitars, with good reason: Its semi-hollow body helped define the roots of rock ’n’ roll in the 1960s. It was the same clanging, metallic tones of a Rickenbacker that George Harrison got on the famous opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night”; the same one that Pete Townshend played on early Who songs like “My Generation”; the same guitar that transformed Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” from dowdy folk song to a hit in 1965. The unmistakable jangle of a Rickenbacker can be heard all throughout Tame Impala’s first two albums—2010’s Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism—as a nod to nascent days of rock and psych music.
On stage, Parker strums his Rickenbacker with a funky rhythm that sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers under hypnosis. Behind him, the band chugs at a beat somewhere between motorik and disco. Half-way through the song, it literally skips into a different section, like a needle caught in the groove, and whorls of synth strings start to crest over the drums and bass. Parker puts down his Rickenbacker and picks up a new Fender J. Mascis Jazzmaster with a MIDI controller plugged into the output.
At an auxiliary mic on the other side of the stage, he sings some into a vocoder in tight, three-note harmonies. Then he sends his guitar through the synth processor and plays a slick computerized riff. The jingle jangle of the Rickenbacker is a distant memory, replaced by a synth guitar trying to sound like a guitar. Now, the unmistakable sounds of ’80s disco, Moroder, Ratatat, and French touch start to seamlessly burrow their way into the song and in from the crowd in the mid-afternoon it all swirls and swims together in one gorgeous, soluble moment of modern music
Parker knows his gear. He knows a Rickenbacker’s history, and he knows what’s imbued on MIDI controller on a guitar. From analog to digital, from the past to the future, Parker moves between them without friction or fanfare. This is his psychedelia, a brand new kind, that uses musical dissolves to blur the internal and external borders of the song. His path on stage during “Let It Happen” takes on the same path as Tame Impala’s third album, Currents, one of the most revolutionary pop statements of the 21st century.
There’s one more precursor to Currents that helped set the stage for this deserved coronation of Kevin Parker: Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories. Two years after its release, it still looms in background of the music industry like an omen. Just as streaming services like Rdio and Spotify began to blur the line of past and present by granting access to the canonical history of pop music, Daft Punk played with the idea of a “timeless” album—as in literally existing outside the boundaries of what and when music should be created. It transcended a “revivalist” record. It shook the ideological foundations of both electronic music and rock music, confounded their signifiers, and was progressive in its transparent use of the past. Daft Punk tore down the walls of genre in pristine hi-fi.
Although blessed with style and musicality, it’s an album that feels more like a museum tour, with different hyper-realistic dioramas triggering the nostalgia gland. Underneath its throwback Thursday vibe, R.A.M. also functioned as a Socratic questionnaire for the state of music. Remember when music was real? Remember when we used real instruments? Is not the future of music rooted in its past? How do we find the future of music in a world of infinite choice?
On Currents, Kevin Parker answers these questions without even knowing they were asked. On a modular level, Currents is impossibly dense to and difficult to describe. There’s not enough nerve endings in the body to receive it all. But to try to put a finer point on it: the drum tracks are spartan and wholly indebted to hip-hop and R&B, the snare sounds like an 8-bit Nintendo explosion, the bass has the treble turned all the way up like Yes’ late Chris Squire, the synths evoke clubs in Miami, bazaars in Turkey, a pirate radio station in West Berlin and what little guitar there is on the album mostly adds exotic texture or just wicks off the rest of the track. And in the middle of trying to compartmentalize a song, you forget that Parker wrote and played every you thing you hear.
It’s not just rock without guitars, or hip-hop without rapping, or psych without sitar. Currents feels like a new hybrid chimera, a kind of music that marks the beginning of an era that willfully recognizes and incorporates as many genres and eras as possible.
As the sole songwriter and producer of Tame Impala, this “timeless” songwriting style of Parker’s traces back to parts of Innerspeaker a large swaths of Lonerism. Since the start of his career, Parker has been more concerned with the varied experience of a song, as opposed to putting it in a familiar form. A song like “Apocalypse Dreams”—a more straight-ahead forerunner for “Let It Happen” off of Lonerism—has a topography so varied you just want to run your finger over it to feel its hills and valleys.
Parker is fearless and confident throughout Currents, graphing forms that rarely pander to pop or rock exceptions. The opening salvo of “Let It Happen” is a bit of an outlier, as the record then sinks into kushier moods and tempos for most of the remainder. “Eventually” is possibly the closest thing to the ghost of a big guitar sound on the album, but the heart of the ballad is how Parker describes his wistful heartbreak. In fact, Parker, in his skinny-tie falsetto, makes a strong case for there being no better word in the English language to better describe heartbreak than “eventually.”
For all this about music, as much space could be donated to Parker’s quotidian lyrics that fall from his suddenly soulful voice, one that has been largely hidden until Currents. His words live so honestly in the moment because it’s an album about what it’s like to investigate a moment. It can be a manic monologue of self-doubt on “Love/Paranoia” or it can be, “I know that you think it’s fake/ maybe fake’s what I like” on the closing track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” as a perry to any would-be critics on his populist sound. He sings of simple things, elegantly stated without any added poeticism. In the cradle of a song like “Yes I’m Changing” Parker can make a line like,“They say people never change that’s bullshit/ they do” sound utterly profound, and moments later sing “There is a world out there, it’s calling my name” like the motto for the entire record. He is simply honest about the things people struggle to be honest about.
Parker opens up about unrequited love, jealousy, heated tempers and pride The bite-your-bottom-lip soul of “’Cause I’m A Man” is the best vocal take he’s ever done. The little flip in his voice when he sings “woman” on the chorus proves that his attention to detail doesn’t stop at his massive pedal board. And his lyrical specificity on “The Less I Know the Better” (which includes thelegendary couplet, “She was holding hands with Trevor/ not the greatest feeling ever”) is ballast to Parker’s broader themes, about self-doubt and abiding, of just letting it happen, man, and living in the abyss of love’s absence.
The record is an extroverted explosion of the kinds of pop impulses that have previously anointed one-man auteurs like Todd Rundgren and Jeff Lynne. But Parker is a new breed in a new era. The future of rock music doesn’t need guitars. Currents plays like series of prefect choices in the borderless infinity of modern music where the odds of doing so are worse than ever. It’s thrilling, like watching someone pitch a no-hitter: Around Parker is chaos and chance and any number of factors that seem out of his control but there is some cosmic confluence, some spiritual force guiding him to something honest and flawless. Rare is the album that sounds like it could only be made today, right now, and even rarer is one that is made from some of the greatest musical and personal moments of Parker’s past.