Tame Impala turn The Beatles' trippiest moment into a luscious floaty ode to solitary life
The list of artists who have tried to be like The Beatles is a looong 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“.
Speaking to NME 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?