The Australian psych rock band Tame Impala released their sophomore album, Lonerism, on October 9th in the U.S. via Modular Records.
The list of artists who have tried to be like The Beatles is a long one. Ramones invented scuzz-punk while trying to be “The Beatles on speed”. ELO’s aim was to pick up where ‘I Am The Walrus’ left off. Daniel Johnston’s entire career is a naive attempt at emulating the Fab Four. And some people reckon Oasis sound a bit like The Beatles too.
Whether he’d admit it or not, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is another member of the club – but with a difference. Where most pilfer from The Beatles in the widest sense, ‘Lonerism’ seems to dig directly from one album – 1966’s ‘Revolver’ – and particularly one track: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. It’s the song that The Chemical Brothers ended DJ sets with. It’s the one Oasis referenced on ‘Morning Glory’ (“Another sunny afternoon/Walking to the sound of my favourite tune/Tomorrow never knows what it doesn’t know too soon”). And it’s the one on which John Lennon turned on, tuned in and dropped out, envisioning vocals that sound like “thousands of monks chanting” and unleashing his inner astral traveller.
It’s fair to say that Parker has done his fair share of psychedelic voyaging too. Put ‘Lonerism’ under a microscope and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is there in its DNA. Sounds phase in and out, drums thunder, guitars chime with warm, valve amp bite, voices are multi-tracked into luscious harmonies, snatched sentences of speech burble in the background, loops repeat and vocals echo distantly, like they’re drifting in from a radio in another room. It’s a blend that really hits its stride at the album’s mid-point, ‘Why Won’t They Talk To Me?’, which crashes over you in waves of sound, pulling back and pushing forward, becoming stronger every time. Its lyrics are starkly literal. It frequently repeats the title, sounding more desperate with each reiteration, and elsewhere it sinks into a pit of despair: “I’m so alone/Nothing for me”; “Lonely old me… I thought I was happy”.
Before the album came out, Parker explained that the title is pretty literal too: it describes his feelings of intense alienation. “I just want to expose myself – I’ve become addicted to telling people how socially inept I am”, he said. What’s strange is how that thought translates into this trippy dream of an album. The default musical response to deep-seated self-loathing would be to pick up an acoustic guitar and emote windily about your myriad problems. Instead, Parker has created something outwardly joyful, a groove-based collection that packs in pop melodies; a Technicolor trip masking his sadness. The titles tell a tale full of ‘woe is me’ moments – the great, bass-driven pop song ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, the aforementioned ‘Why Won’t They Talk To Me?’ and the glam rock-like ‘Elephant’, which masks lyrics including “He’s got friends but you get the feeling/That they wouldn’t care too much if he’d just disappear” behind a Goldfrapp-like electro stomp. It’s music that tells you one thing while sounding like another.
Perhaps the greatest moment is ‘Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control’, a cymbal-crashing moment of fried psychedelia that’s so Beatles-y you expect to see the Yellow Submarine float by. But these Beatles comparisons aren’t meant to be a criticism, nor a suggestion that ‘Lonerism’ lacks scope, ambition, originality or great tunes. It’s more a reflection of how far The Beatles could have gone on exploring the psychedelic direction of their ’66/’67 purple patch, and a reflection of how, today, it’s possible for one man, working largely alone, to match what was once the pinnacle of pioneering sound produced by the greatest band ever in the world’s most famous studio. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ came from experiments with psychedelic substances; ‘Lonerism’ is escapism that comes from a desperate place. Is this feat – and this brilliant album – what the term ‘splendid isolation’ means?
Tame Impala – Elephant
The childlike element of ’60s psychedelia hasn’t translated as much to the contemporary psych-rock scene. Watch Roky Erickson documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me or spend any time delving into the solo discography of Syd Barrett, and you get a sense of these psych-rock pioneers as big, innocent kids (among other peculiarities). But anything that smacks of stuffed-animal softness these days has to either fight or embrace derision for being “twee.” Hence when MGMT wanted to sing about a lost icon, they picked twee-pop godfathers the Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy, although in an earlier time it made sense for the TPs to sing that “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives.”
Former MGMT tourmates Tame Impala certainly don’t aim to change any of that in their new video for Todd Rundgren-remixed fuzzbox-stomper “Elephant,” but there’s a spirit of bedside imaginativeness at play in their recordings that expands on an earlier generation’s whimsy. The Australian psych-rock juggernauts’ new album, due out October 9 in the U.S., is even called Lonerism — this is not music that evinces bottle service. New York-based director Yoshi Sodeoka runs live footage by Aussie creative collective the Silentlights through swirling, analogue-style effects, complementing the song even better than the spacey imagery that accompanied its original premiere.
It’s the kind of spirit that had even Winnie the Pooh tripping out about elephants — ‘cept he called ’em “heffalumps” — by 1968. Who knows where Tame Imp frontboy Kevin Parker lives?
“Gotta be above it,” goes the whispered chant wending all through the opening track, as if Parker’s psyching himself up for a sequel sure to be scrutinized by the hipsterati. This time out, even the rhythms are gloriously fucked by the mixing-board gizmos of indie-producer-supremo David Fridmann; whereas Innerspeaker aimed to create electronica solely through guitars and sound manipulation, this one adds actual synths (vintage analogue models, of course) to his cosmic medicine chest. “I’ll just close my eyes and make it so that all these little things don’t affect me now,” the singer chirps in a voice that suggests the damaged inner child John Lennon concealed beneath the screams of Plastic Ono Band, as ricocheting double-time drums and slasher-film synth chords exacerbate the ticking-time-bomb suspense. Instead of the fake bravado that often mars sophomore albums, our hero instead dives face-first into his predicament: Can I put the real me out there and not be torn apart?Parker learned to play guitar by jamming with his dad, a former Beatles/Beach Boys/Supertramp cover-band member. As you might suspect, the son digs the Flaming Lips, too, along with Sweden’s exactingly proggy Dungen, a combo reflected in this album’s explosive “Endors Toi.” But his fantasy collaborator is Britney Spears, and he’s allegedly toiling on an entire album dedicated to his apparently oblivious countrywoman, Kylie Minogue. True to his outsider identity, Parker is clearly already rebelling against the expectations that come with winning Album of the Year honors in Australia’s Rolling Stone, and so he sticks shameless bubblegum piano riffs into “Apocalypse Dreams” while hitting notes higher than those even Spears and Minogue can achieve.
His real-life ally is French chanteuse Melody Prochet, whose new Melody’s Echo Chamber he played on and produced. But unlike distant pop divas, actual girlfriends bring genuine conflicts, here expressed with unsparing candor: “A beautiful girl is wasting my life / I’m playing a part as somebody else / While trying so hard to be myself.” In “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control,” he calls his beloved “Elodie” while hammering out hammy Ringo Starr drum fills until he concludes on the fade-out that “Every man is happy until happiness is suddenly a goal / I’ll just be here waiting till the doctor calls….”
The troubled soul Parker presents, his girl problems, the struggle for authentic manhood, the interplay between angelic choirboy fa la las and barely contained instrumental violence…these are the building blocks of power pop as practiced by early Who, Badfinger, Big Star, or Todd Rundgren (who contributes a superior, non-album remix of the giddy yet stomping single “Elephant”), and other typically self-destructive man-child rockers of the ’60s and early ’70s who’ve inspired countless safer, lesser imitations. Parker’s gift is not only that he goes psychologically deeper and darker than most acolytes of those bands — all while rendering exacting replications of complex psych-prog chords and harmonies that pretenders can only approximate — but that he also distorts and personalizes the outcome.
This lonerism, like that of Nick Drake, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, or Elliott Smith, feels dangerously genuine, yet not nearly as despairing. For all the alienation implied by the album’s continually warping and waving center of gravity, there are colors here brighter than a child’s watercolor rainbow. Parker’s little boy may be emotionally bruised, but his capacity for capturing bliss remains unblemished.
Kevin Parker (Vocals), Nick Allbrook (Bass), Jay Watson (Drums)
Dominic Simper (Synthesizer), Julien Barbagallo (Backing Vocals)
01. Be Above It
02. Endors Toi
03. Apocalypse Dreams
04. Mind Mischief
05. Music to Walk Home By
06. Why Won’t They Talk to Me?
07. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
08. Keep on Lying
10. She Just Won’t Believe Me
11. Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control
12. Sun’s Coming Up
By Ian Cohen
; October 8, 2012 The band will be showcasing songs new and old at Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, and Osheaga. Check out their full 2012 tour schedule HERE