Rock ‘n’ roll is one of those things that lives on as much in funny stories as in the music itself. One of my favorite descriptions of Australian band Tame Impala came from a commenter on YouTube, who described them as “The Beatles meet Black Sabbath.” I will also never forget the reaction of a clerk behind the counter at the long-lost Discount Records, in Ann Arbor, Mich., shortly after the release of Van Halen’s 1984, after giving the mega-smash single “Jump” a few bars of rotation: “Where the f*&$ are the guitars, man? What happened to Eddie?”
The comparison of Tame Impala to the Fab Four was apparent to me right off the bat, what with songwriter and guitarist Kevin Parker’s John Lennonesque voice and the ways that the band’s first album, Innerspeaker, took Revolver and Abbey Road in trippy new directions. The Sabbath comparison, on the other hand, makes sense when you connect Parker’s guitar fuzz to Tony Iommi.
So the big news about Tame Impala’s third full-length album “Currents,” released Friday, is that the guitars have mostly been nudged aside for synthesizers. As if it’s 1984 all over again.
“Currents” introduces new elements to the Tame Impala sound, including disco, funk, yacht rock, ’80s keyboard pop, even progressive synth compositions in the vein of Tangerine Dream or Phillip Glass. The lyrics are pushed more to the fore and are more introspective: “Life is moving / Can’t you see / There’s no future left for you and me,” he sings in “Yes I’m Changing.” There is still some heaviness, such as in “Eventually,” and the lead-off track “Let It Happen,” and Parker, who has played all or most of the music on the band’s earlier recordings, once again assigns the bass and drums prominent roles.
Tame Impala for me has always been less about the guitars than the whole. There’s the rhythm section, which lays down heavy beats and thick, interesting bass lines that give Parker free reign to meander with his guitar. The band makes brilliant pop songs that establish a dreamy, hypnotic psych groove that evoke the feel of controlled substances. That’s not to say this isn’t a jarring stylistic change for the band, but upon early listens I sense it mostly works and shows the band isn’t content to simply mine late-’60s psychedelia forever.
Whether fans — particularly the bong-toke crowd — will embrace “Currents” will be interesting to watch. A friend recently caught one of their shows and described an uncomfortably packed house that witnessed an incredible, inspired performance.
Tame Impala has updated into a timeless, stirring vein of psychedelia, more accessible than the Flaming Lips, better and more original songwriters than most of the rest of their contemporary psychedelic peers and perhaps emboldened in the wake of the Grateful Dead finally bidding Fare Thee Well to its own legions of merry prankster fans. Will it work in a more electronic format?