Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Kevin Parker, a.k.a. Tame Impala
Kevin Parker, a.k.a. Tame Impala
Photo: Matt Sav

In 2010, the notion of a small-time, Beatles-esque psychedelic project growing into a global festival headliner may have seemed too Woodstock-y to be true, but this has been Tame Impala’s exact trajectory over the last decade. As Kevin Parker’s psych-rock band expanded past the wah-drenched stylings of its 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, toward 2012’s colossal pop experiment Lonerism and 2015’s disco-lite Currents, the group gained new fans in amounts proportional to each album’s increase in critical acclaim. Parker’s melodies and production with each subsequent album likewise became significantly sharper and more upbeat.

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One thing, however, has remained unchanged: From the get-go, Parker’s lyrics have had at least some level of cringe factor, with reaches for philosophical highs often sounding half-baked or, at worst, immature. Even amidst the sweeping drum blasts and saccharine synths of Lonerism that highlight “Music To Walk Home By,” the juvenility of Parker’s ruminations on purposelessness proved inescapable. Currents opened with arguably the best five-minute-plus pop song of the 2010s (“Let It Happen”), but one line from the album’s closer—“I know that you think it’s fake / Maybe fake’s what I like”—resembled a preteen blowing a raspberry until Rihanna made this brashness sound profound.

Parker’s long-awaited Currents follow-up, The Slow Rush, isn’t quite as interesting as its predecessors in terms of songwriting and production, and this gap makes Parker’s lyrical weaknesses more challenging to ignore. As the album’s title suggests, Parker fixates here on the passage of time, but he often belly-flops into tropes about loneliness or mistakes snide comments for revelations. Although its catchiest moments somewhat make up for lyrics as cloying as “If you think I couldn’t hold my own, believe me, I can,” The Slow Rush’s production and melodies underwhelm compared to Parker’s signature blissful odysseys.

About that lyric: Though one of the album’s weakest, it actually comes from one of the LP’s most energizing songs. “Breathe Deeper” opens with a guitar shuffle that would feel at home amid the rapturous bursts that defined Lonerism, but even when vigorous acid-house pianos emerge during the refrain, the song never blossoms the way we’ve come to expect from Parker’s best productions. “Is It True,” perhaps the album’s most disco-indebted tune, may well be the LP’s most galvanizing, but its rump-shaking bass line and Vegas Strip synths can’t mask its haphazardly narrated story: A conversation about the nature of devotion turns into Parker telling the other person his love for them might not last. Plot-wise, the sharp left turn is hard to believe.

Musically, The Slow Rush is disappointingly devoid of such abrupt deviations. Parker has long been a master of suddenly exaggerating one part of a song so strongly—the “Let It Happen” record-scratch trick, “Apocalypse Dreams” briefly imploding and then dramatically exploding with a hair-raising key change—that only literal stones would fail to feel catharsis. On these new songs, however, he opts for such varnished smoothness that the music often loses its luster. This trend might stem from his pop production for other artists; consider the song he produced for Kali Uchis’ remarkable Isolation, “Tomorrow.” Where the unobtrusive, mildly trippy effects Parker applied to Uchis’ silken synths elevated her vocals’ endless warmth, on The Slow Rush, this restraint saps poignance from moments such as the first two minutes of “Posthumous Forgiveness.”

Still, that song eventually finds its way toward one of the album’s most unshakable musical moments. Staccato, delirious synths and kick drums melt into a foreboding, mind-swirling abyss that faint acoustic notes later enhance, and in classic Parker style, these elements unexpectedly disappear to introduce an entirely different motif. Unfortunately, where Parker has previously employed such bait and switches to conjure glorious geysers of sound, here he follows that exciting midsection with a dull, barren stretch padded with bizarre lyrics, including a passing mention of “Mick Jagger on the phone.”

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Though Parker has long dabbled in lyrics that don’t hold weight upon close inspection, the chorus of glistening single “It Might Be Time” feels especially shallow. Here, Parker matches the aforementioned “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” wisecrack with a remark that the new track’s siren-like wails, technicolor synths, and booming drums can’t hide. “You’re goin’ under / You ain’t as young as you used to be / It might be time to face it / You ain’t as cool as you used to be,” he sings. He often seems uninspired enough on The Slow Rush that he could be talking about himself.

Max Freedman is a Philly-based writer with bylines in MTV News, FLOOD, Paste, Bandcamp Daily, and, of course, The A.V. Club. Ask him about Angel Olsen, chili, and Chidi Anagonye.

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