A magazine recently canvassed the opinions of Tame Impala’s Australian mastermind Kevin Parker on the differences between his second album Lonerism and its predecessor, Innerspeaker. On the face of it a straightforward query, but Parker required three goes at the answer, a state of affairs that led the journalist to compare him with Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap. First he suggested Lonerism contained “melodies that beam at you rather than wash over you”. Then he reconsidered, suggesting instead that its songs were “more like an explosion rather than a wave”. And then he decided the new songs were quite like a wave after all: “Like waves that hit you rather than you swimming in an ocean of melody,” he offered, adding a hopeful “know what I mean?”
This is all in keeping with the image of Parker as a kind of heavy-lidded auteur, a man who sings and plays every note on Tame Impala’s records in his Perth bedroom and spent a significant proportion of his debut album bemoaning the deleterious effects of his drug intake on his personal life. “I wanted her, but she doesn’t like the life I lead,” he wailed, “sitting around smoking weed.” That he might cure his romantic agony at a stroke by spending a little less time sitting around smoking weed had apparently not occurred to him, but that’s the logic of the committed stoner for you.
But, as Nigel Tufnell once opined, there’s a very fine line between stupid and clever. And for all Parker seems to enjoy playing the pothead pixie – the YouTube trailer for Lonerism consists of live footage intercut with Parker going “errrm” and “what was I going to say?” – Tame Impala’s albums seem very clever indeed. Psychedelia’s ongoing appeal to musicians is understandable – there’s something seductive about the restless pioneering spirit of rock music in 1966/67 – but to the latterday artist it’s less a genre than a conundrum. It’s supposed to be transcendent, innovative, unbound, futuristic. Equally, it’s a genre that’s become codified, sonically defined by noises that were the cutting-edge in technology and taste 45 years ago: tapes played backwards and out of phase, wah pedals, Eastern-influenced drones, the reedy tones of the Farfisa Compact organ. If you’re minded to make more than a pastiche, to do something other than rearrange a load of cliches, you’re going to have to find a way of reconciling its sound with its forward-thinking ethos. Not an easy job, but like its predecessor, Lonerism pulls it off.
It certainly contains a lot of what you might call psychedelic psignifiers. The drums are usually a fidgety take on the Tomorrow Never Knows tumble; Keep on Lying ends with some mournful organ that sounds exactly like something Richard Wright might have played on the first Pink Floyd album; Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Can Control and Mind Mischief are bathed in phasing effects, their sound panning from speaker to speaker. Moreover, it displays an innate understanding of psychedelia, not least in its balance between the beatific and the bleak: from White Rabbit to Arnold Layne to A Day in the Life, the best psych records were always more gritty and troubled than the popular cartoon of the serene peace-sign-flashing flower child suggested. Here, Gotta Be Above It seems to be a musical depiction of an on stage panic attack, with its whispering voice, jumpy drums and ominous electronics. Meanwhile the melody of Why Won’t They Talk to Me? is as beautiful and its echo-laden sound as spacey as the song’s tone is dark: as is perhaps inevitable if you make your albums alone in one of the most remote cities in the world, Parker seems to have a lot to say about isolation and loneliness, and he says it rather more eloquently than his public image might suggest. But Lonerism never really sounds retro, slathered as it is with electronics. Virtually every instrument is caked in distortion, but not the warm, familiar fuzz of an overdriven amplifier. It feels digital, alien, the sound of modern machines going wrong.
All this is underpinned by genuinely great songwriting. People tend to describe Parker’s melodies as Lennonesque, which in the era of Beady Eye sounds an oddly backhanded compliment, like shorthand for saying he’s not trying at all. But the Lennon he evokes is the author of Happiness Is a Warm Gun and Julia, blessed with an innate pop sensibility, but always searching for the unforeseen chord, the unexpected melodic shift. Ultimately, on Elephant’s warped bovver-glam or the unsettling mix of piano ballad and ferociously noisy guitar soloing that is album closer Sun’s Coming Up, Tame Impala just sound like Tame Impala: delving into the past in order to drag it into the future. No wonder the man at the centre of it all has a hard time describing what he’s doing.