Diving into Currents from Tame Impala

Kevin Parker is back with the synthesiser dominated third album. Swapping in his guitar may raise eyebrows, but Currents from Tame Impala is well worth your time.

We may be hitting a rich seam of irony here, but I’ll say it regardless: I’ve got no time for fuddy-duddies. Yes, only the fuddiest duddy would ever use a phrase that’s older than hipster-bashing and Tom Cruise jokes, but here I find myself irresistibly compelled. The reason is that Tame Impala’s Currents is the kind of album that brings out the duddy in some people, and shows them up for the prize chumps that they are.

You’ve probably heard by now that Kevin Parker’s latest offering is quite a departure, almost entirely ditching the maximalist, guitar-centric sound of earlier releases in favour of the vintage synth tones and sampled drums which previously acted to merely spice up Parker’s arrangements. The change may not always pay off, but it is a necessary one that yields a fine collection of glistening pop-nuggets, and displays a welcome immunity to the interests of moaning rock purists.

Things kick off with Let It Happen, the album’s proggiest and most distinctive track. Though it ultimately lingers a little too long after winding through multiple skilfully arranged segments, it represents arguably the album’s best blend between production, composition and experimentation. No other track is quite as daring, though others may be stronger.

Most notable is the triple-whammy of The Moment, Yes I’m Changing and Eventually. Here each track perfectly balances crisp, sampled drum sounds with smatterings of the analogue drums of yore, while newly prominent synths and vocals playfully alternate between syrupy, semi-classical melodies, and a newfound, sweet clarity. This clarity extends to the lyrics, which are both more audible and more straightforward than on previous albums.

Some commenters have characterised Currents as a ‘breakup’ album, and indeed many tracks trade on that theme, however much of the lyrics can also be read as addressing Parker’s own decision to pursue a more electronic and explicitly pop-friendly production style. It’s very cleverly done, and the theme of artistic-change as romantic-breakup both ties the album together and forestalls criticism of those yearning for the days of Innerspeaker.

The new pop-smart sound is most evident on The Less I Know The Better and Cause I’m A Man, two winning tracks that echo the drowsy, polished melancholy of Currents’ cover art, albeit at the cost of a little too much repetition. At its best, Currents gives us a stripped back yet still-sparkling version of Parker’s sound, one that trades rumbling, widescreen vistas for an intimate, clean-cut embrace.

But the welcome changes come at a price; albeit one that is understandable and addressable. Perhaps most immediately apparent is that, in ditching guitars in favour of mostly synth-based arrangements, Parker has lost a key source of what made previous records so distinctive. Parker’s guitar tone – sounding alternately like a nauseous shoreline or an imploding star – is instantly recognisable, yet on Currents, his arrangements are more focused on the synthesiser, an instrument which he clearly understands but on which he has not developed quite as distinctive an approach. The overall composition and performances are still unusually strong compared to Tame Impala’s peers, but the songs aren’t quite so clearly defined as before, and thus the album drifts more than intended.

This drift could be alleviated by some trimming. The three briefest tracks – Nangs, Gossip, and Disciples – do have their charms, and are all fairly short, however they never really cleanse the palate in the way they appear to be intended to do. Rather in their wispy noodling they make it a little harder to differentiate between the tracks that surround them. Though they may help ease the transition for those craving the woollier sounds of earlier albums, ditching these tracks could allow the remaining, more substantive tracks, to cohere more fully.

Currents is still a fine album however – and here we return to the fuddy-duddies. The album is a big departure, and some folks don’t like change. Stroll through most rock bands’ catalogues and it won’t be long before you see a steady shift away from guitars to the heavier use of synthetic sounds. Similarly, just as all rock bands (barring AC/DC) have their much-criticised ‘experimental phase’, so too will they go ‘back to basics’, often on a self-titled, stripped back, guitar-centric album.

Sometimes the criticism is warranted. Indeed the ‘80s were liberally littered with stinking duds made by nervous ‘60s artists getting a bit too trigger-happy with synths. But the criticisms of guitar-obsessives (of which I am one) are starting to sound ever more threadbare and sad. True, the rapid proliferation of affordable synthesis makes it easier than ever to make shitty music fast, but making truly great music is just as hard as it’s ever been, and more importantly, we’re kind of done with rock.

It’s been many years since guitars, or even rock generally, have held the reins of popular music. Rock today is where jazz was in the ‘80s; a once-wild youth craze has gone through the prog-tunnel and emerged as the tasteful pastime of an ever-shrinking (and very white male) audience.

I’m sure some will later call for a ‘return-to-form’ on Tame Impala’s part, to ditch the gizmos and lay down some munted riffs. Fine music may well result, but those demands would nevertheless be wrongheaded. Though by no means perfect, Currents ably demonstrates that true originality and care will always win out, no matter the musical setting. There will be stumbles – and there are a few here – but to insist on the safety of guitars is nothing but the fuddiest duddiness.

So things have changed, and this is no bad thing. The best response to critics of change is to just keep making great music. I’m sure some folks are still cranky about OK Computer, but if you were to argue for Radiohead to return to Britpop then you’d find yourself the recipient of a fine collection of pitying glances. I’m glad Tame Impala is headed somewhere other than thirteen more rewrites of Elephant, and Currents is a fine primer that makes me eager for whatever Parker comes out with next.

Yes, this is a slightly awkward transition, such that as an album Currents cannot be said to touch upon the sense of wild discovery that marked Tame Impala’s previous two records. There are many moments of beauty that effortlessly blend wistful grandeur with an electronic pulse; however there are also some that sounds like any number of volunteer-radio-approved sad-R&B acts. This is not cause to pine for the sounds of yesteryear however, but rather to think of what will happen when Parker imprints his synths with the same inimitable touch that he brought to the guitar. So listen to Currents with my blessing, and dream of the melodies that are yet to come.