You have to feel a little bit for Tame Impala. It wasn’t Kevin Parker’s intention to be coronated the saviour of rock on a mainstream level, but – for better or worse – that’s what happened. As genres started collapsing into themselves in the last decade’s second half – rock into electronic, pop into hip-hop – there Parker stood in the middle of it all, guitar in hand. Following 2012’s mainstream breakthrough ‘Lonerism’, their third album ‘Currents’ established them as rare modern guitar heroes making the leap to festival headline slots.
It remains an unfair burden. Interviewers have recently found Parker keen to move the conversation away from the rock saviour narrative. Speaking to Billboard, he made it clear that his ambitions lay in the pop battlefield, explaining that “writing a catchy, sugary pop song” is “the yin to the yang of psychedelic rock”. Instead, he wants to “be a Max Martin”, a reference to one of the most celebrated songwriter this side of the millennium, whose credits include work with Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and The Weekend.
Since ‘Currents’, Parker has become a voguish producer adored by hip-hop titans – from Kanye West to A$AP Rocky– and pop heavyweights such as Lady Gaga (he co-wrote some of her rootsy 2016 album ‘Joanne’). His horizons have broadened beyond a home-studio in Melbourne – he’s now in the thick of LA’s music scene.
It seems there were endless moving parts and inner-conflicts rattling Parker’s mind in the five-year gap between ‘Currents’ and Tame Impala’s fourth album, ‘The Slow Rush’. He’d hoped to have the album out to coincide with their headline appearance at Coachella last Spring. That didn’t materialise and he’s since admitted that work only really began towards the end of 2018. Well, fans’ expectations have been dizzyingly high: it’s little wonder that this album has such a large gestation period.
So: was ‘The Slow Rush’ worth the wait?
The answer, for the most part, is – deep breath – a resounding ‘yes’. This is a 57-minute flex of every musical muscle in Parker’s body. Crunchy guitars are largely absent, but we’re left with something far more intriguing – a pop record bearing masterful electronic strokes. If ‘Currents’ soundtracked the glorious come-up, ‘The Slow Rush’ is the wobbly morning after, with everything and everyone under question.
This tone is established through the first few lines on moody opening track ‘One More Year’, Parker’s most intimate song to date. As a steady beat and glitchy loops establishes itself, he ponders about his connection to the places outside his studio, and outside his own head: “Do you remember we were standing here a year ago / Our minds were racing and time went slow / If there was trouble in the world we didn’t know / If we ever cared we didn’t show”. The second half of previous single ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’, a reckoning with Parker’s now-deceased father, is a cathartic rumination on their tricky relationship and his now superstardom: “Wanna tell you ’bout the time / I was in Abbey Road / Or the time that I had / Mick Jagger on the phone”.
Parker reflects on the power of nostalgia (‘Lost In Yesterday’) and the fear of losing his mojo (‘It Might Be Time’), while the spindly ‘Tomorrow’s Dust’ is a slap round the face in the favour of progress: “There’s no use tryin’ to relate to that old song”. This is not the kind of powerhouse songwriting you’d expected from Max Martin, but ‘The Slow Rush’ is actually better for it. These songs are often ethereal, dense and cosmic: you won’t find a happy-go-lucky, catch-all chorus here.
And, to return to the notion of Kevin Parker wunder-producer, this album simply sounds phenomenal. The production, sound design and creative instrumentation are genuinely outstanding throughout – nobody does it better than our Kev.
Take ‘Is It True’, which continues the kind of boogie he rolled out with Trinidadian rapper and singer Theophilus London for their 2019 cover of ‘Only You’, a serious ’80s groover originally performed by cult Nigerian hero Steve Monite. ‘Breathe Deeper’ flits between ravey pianos and ‘80s Fleetwood Mac – with a touch of Daft Punk’s ‘Da Funk’ thrown in the song’s final 90 seconds.
Sometimes, though, the songs don’t quite do the production justice. 2019 single ‘Borderline’ has been reworked and fleshed-out, a move that still can’t mask the lacklustre chorus. And where’s 2019 single ‘Patience’? It’s a genuine anthem and a much better song than ‘Borderline’. The album’s final quarter sags somewhat; from ‘It Might Be Time’ on you’d be forgiven for thinking time itself has stood still as you wait for this spectacular, exhausting album to finish.
As far as follow-ups to an earth-shattering run of albums go, though this is much more than just a solid return. It is, overall, an exhilarating listen. Tame Impala are unlikely to lose any fans by embracing Parker’s pop sensibilities – genres are history, man – but you have to admire their wilful desire to push into new directions. This band aren’t rock music’s saviours; they’re so much more than that.
Release date: February 14
Record label: Fiction