Tame Impala Currents

[Interscope/Modular; 2015]

Styles: car commercial psych
Others: MGMT, “The Beatles,” Instagram

Instagram used to be strange. Before it became a “social platform,” it was billed as a single-purpose image editing tool, and even now it’s not difficult to remember how the filters (especially “Toaster” and “Kelvin”) were recognizable as poor approximations of what analog photography “looked like.” Instagram became ridiculous. Your parents and grandparents signed up, and the spontaneous aspect of the filters was all but completely forgotten as you saw them applied to so many pictures of meals and sunsets that the unchanging formula became transparent. It’s easy to see how Instagram might have once been useful for assigning affective sensitivity or a warmth of tone to an otherwise unspectacular unit of content, but now each post is a little bit of a parody. The filters have become vulgar to many, who stopped posting altogether or began posting without them. I don’t claim to understand why people want to replicate the aesthetic of instant analog photography well enough to offer criticism, and I’m definitely not elitist or naïve enough to ask that people buy cameras and film to get the “real thing.” Instagram is, to me, evidence of an obvious and banal truth: that if your understanding of the past is reductive or overly simple and you nonetheless attempt to put the past to work, productively organizing the past in the service of reframing the present, what you get is similarly reduced and simplified.

Tame Impala is the Instagram of rock bands. I often wonder what the most perfect iteration of Tame Impala would be to Kevin Parker or to fans of his music (would he just sound even more like John Lennon?). I know it’s unfair to take a piece of music to imagined logical conclusions — its logic is not necessarily mine, and there’s a reason that Parker released this record instead of literally anything else — but I’ve always felt a little intellectually insulted by Tame Impala albums because they confront me with a logic that really is that simple. As with Instagram, what appears to be the singular affective nuance ends up being a simple formula. Just add a particular guitar tone, lots of phaser and tremolo, and that Lennon affectation to any rock song and you’ve got it. While many will point to Parker just plainly stating his feelings as a sign of musical evolution or increased lyrical complexity, I’m not buying it. The feeling of listening to Currents is the same as that of seeing a photo with the “Toaster” filter slapped over it for the 50th time, to say nothing of the fact that Tame Impala’s last album had a sleeve with a white balance I associate more closely with “Walden” than with instant film.

People read music reviews to learn about music, and people learn about music for a lot of reasons. I’ll momentarily ignore the fact that people still pay real money for music released by massive media conglomerates in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, and I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by implying that the vast majority of you actually will pay to hear this record (even if you’re a Tame Impala fan). In the interest of giving you what you are most likely here for, I’ll devote the remainder of this paragraph to describing the album, including the ways in which it differs from 2010’s Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism. More synths. I think I’m hearing all the same pedals and digital treatments, but at least the synths are prettier than the midrange-heavy guitar jamming I expected. The drums are still super compressed and loud. The lyrics are still simple and repetitive, as if overwhelmed with their own meaning (this is the one aspect of Parker’s music that successfully approximates a drug- or disorientation-induced moment of self-realization), but they are generally less playful and more anxious and self-aware than Lonerism’s exhortation to “be above it” and whatever that song about the elephant said. Most importantly, though, I feel like I’m supposed to close my eyes and imagine that this music accompanies a series of images or clips with the white balance pushed to a warm JPEG yellow. Par for the course.

Everyone seemed to really like Parker’s songwriting on Lonerism, but I was perfectly content to put it down after a single listen and file it in my brain under “bad impersonations of music that already exists and most young Americans have heard.” The most frustrating thing about Currents is that, for probably the first time, it seems like Parker is writing songs that would be pretty decent and probably interesting if he freed them from this musty aesthetic and gave them room to express themselves. “Yes I’m Changing,” a song Parker claims to have completely forgotten making (really?), has some moments of pure, unaffected melancholy, all but spoiled by a loudly buzzing bass line and those goddamned compressed drums. Lennon never wrote songs like “Yes I’m Changing,” but he nonetheless had the good sense not to ruin what he did write by affecting some preexisting style that he trusted more than himself to adequately express himself. Currents has a lot of these muddy but essentially good songs — I count “The Less I Know The Better” and “Disciples” (in which Parker does a surprisingly effective Ariel Pink impression before the fucking compressed drums return) in this category.

On the other end of the spectrum, “Eventually” moves with the pace and the sonic depth of the best Jai Paul songs, but it’s kind of hard to appreciate good production when lyrics and structure seem to have been pulled from some secret style manual meant for successful indie rock bands making their third album. “Past Life” is the same story — sounds interesting in a number of superficial ways, but is actually a really boring song.

Parker rehearses the classic “boys will be boys” routine in the lyrics to “‘Cause I’m A Man,” as if they are the most important or complicated words ever to be spoken, somehow combining extreme gender essentialism with the mind-numbing binary construction of the hook: “I’m a man, woman.” Just so we don’t forget from whom this music is coming and to whom it’s addressed. The funny part? Currents makes me so idle and unquestioning through its monolithic uniformity that I’m not even mad. I don’t think twice about these lyrics, because I have no reason to. I think (or maybe I hope) that this music is so vanilla, so deliberately stripped of meaning, and so dead thanks to its own fixed aesthetic touchstones that no impressionable indie rock middle schooler is going to shift their ideological assumptions thanks to Parker’s lyrics. Maybe this itself is a revelation — when music functions properly, shouldn’t I allow myself to feel disgusted? Maybe it’s right to be cynical, especially when discussing an album distributed by a corporation that could and would sue me for my weight in gold if they found out about what I’ve been up to on the internet for the past 10 years or so. Maybe music is just a commodity, and the vivid feelings of love and beauty and nostalgia and intensity and heartbreak we feel while listening to it are just capitalism playing surplus-value games with us. Even so, shouldn’t we be discussing an economy of affect in which even the commonest, basest commodity is worth more than the fleeting apathy of an Instagram double-tap? In which creating value requires more than the formulaic application of a filter, endlessly compressing the past into the same fixed signifiers?

Links: Tame Impala - Interscope/Modular

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