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All Work and No Playa: Tame Impala Feels Like They’re Only Moving Sideways

‘The Slow Rush’ is undoubtedly accomplished, but it feels like an audition for the next phase of Kevin Parker’s career

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week, Micah Peters surveys the world of music—from new releases to bubbling trends to anniversaries both big and obscure—and gives a few recommendations.

You associate the words “Tame Impala” with what the band makes—hyperprocessed psychedelia, neatly packaged at the exact halfway point between chopping the mountain with the edge of your hand and sliding down it nose-first—so you never really think about what the name means. Or maybe it was just me that spent the past decade-plus wrapped in the blissful glow of the pop-minded Aussie rocker’s sound, wholly unconcerned with what the band name means, because how could that information augment the experience? The feeling would be the same if they were the Fuzzy Navels. But the name means something, according to this 2012 interview with Kevin Parker:

The name ‘Tame Impala’ is just a reference to the African animal really, from a perspective of coming into contact with a live one, one that you’d come across in nature and having this real brief, unspoken moment but with some level of communication between yourself and this wild animal. Then the next minute it’s gone returning to where it came from.”

This kind of myth-focused, auteur musician quote initially scans like hooey—but then you consider “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” as the wild animal that Parker wants you to have this unspoken moment with. The song, from 2012’s Lonerism, with its ever-evolving bass line, Hammond organ pops, striking drum fills, and live-die-repeat structure, argued for Tame Impala as one of the cleverest rock bands working. Elsewhere in that 2012 interview Parker decries revivalism as boring and redundant and claims to have been pretty disappointed upon first hearing Sgt. Pepper, but much of Tame Impala’s breakout music owed big debts to late-’60s psych rock; “Feels” was proof that Kevin Parker and Co. could engineer an intense rush of ecstasy all their own.

In writing this, I legged it after the feeling of this particular unspoken moment with all kinds of cutesy embellishments and try-hard references—with words, the exact thing you’re not supposed to use—but was finally outdone by a YouTube comment, like always. From user “Saucy Cowboy”: “[this song] sounds like end credits for ur life.”

Some of these unspoken moments linger longer than others. A good Tame Impala song is like a perfectly curated set of shifting moods that remind you less of a moment in time than of a season in your life. Though “Mind Mischief” came out two years before I arrived here, to me the song represents the boundless possibility I discovered when I moved to Los Angeles with no plan in 2014—the constant sunshine, the warmth of strangers I met by chance on Fairfax, the soft rattle of loose change in my pocket. “She remembers, my naaaaaaaaaaaaaame” hits different when you have double shifts and no car to take someone on a date.

2015’s Currents was one of those long-lingering unspoken moments. The whole thing was. Real heads have deep attachments to particular songs (“Love/Paranoia” is a more considered-slash-devastating version of “Sundown Syndrome,” with six years’ added perspective, bigger drums, and an even higher-soaring chorus; I think about it twice a week) but in general, people tend to talk about this album as a monolith. I remember the promo trailer, which showed Parker wandering around his apartment, twiddling knobs, touching keys, sinking into a bathtub totally exhausted after his big, creative birth. After dispensing with the idea that the band was much more than Kevin Parker alone in a room with his thoughts and instruments, it was the whole of Currents—not “The Less I Know the Better” or “Reality in Motion” by themselves—that raised Parker’s profile to Coachella-headlining status and made his music a favorite among the Playa set. Artists now often have to outpace a single big song they’ve become synonymous with—but whenever Kevin Parker emerged from whichever recording hole he was in, he’d have to top Currents. How could he sublimate heartbreak, directionlessness, and primal fear of the unknown into another album that captures droves of new Tame Impala fans?

Well, he couldn’t. But he got kind of close by being even more academic in his approach. Much of what people have to say about The Slow Rush, out last Friday, centers on how musically accomplished it is, and all the attentive, pedantic work it took to build. A notorious perfectionist, Parker committed himself to the concept of time in both the writing and crafting of this album: thematically, he spends the lion’s share of Rush at its mercy; technically, I’ve scarcely heard such a command of it. The drums pull “On Track” along at the exact right pace, like a chain-lift before the dive drop into “Lost in Yesterday.” Not a single gasp of air is out of place: What Parker did to the album version of “Borderline” was basically film editing; deepening the bass just so, punching up the snares just right, exposing just enough lens flare.

Parker also wants to be a chart whisperer like Max Martin, so Rush doubles as an audition for the dominant sound of the next half-decade of pop music. Think of it like BMW rolling a shape-shifting car made entirely out of fabric onto the showroom floor—you’ll see pieces of it on a range of cars in the coming months, but you won’t see one of these rolling down the street. (My editor Justin would personally love to hear another “Circles,” or something like it.) Because of the album’s ambitions, Rush can often feel more like an exercise in listening than a listening experience, sending you down painstakingly carved rabbit holes and lifting you back up on intensely methodical drum progressions. The unspoken moments are more fleeting this time. There isn’t anything as immediate as “The Less I Know the Better,” but good Lord are there arrangements. Parker layers every strain of sound from Philly Soul to yacht rock, and while nothing feels extraneous, nothing feels particularly exciting, either. On The Slow Rush cover there’s a beautiful house with illimitable natural light and beautiful blood orange paint—with sand pouring in through the western-facing window. As I walked around Los Angeles listening to the album this past weekend, all I could think about was how no one can live inside.

Now, some recommendations for the week:

Dave comes to the BRIT Awards to beef with the prime minister.

Dave has been bringing a piano out during the set change at recent live performances to set the tone for “Hangman” and “Black,” two of the more somber and intentional songs in the British rapper’s catalog. “Hangman” positions Dave as a street archivist, “Black” argues for him as a consummate cultural archivist—on “Black” he attempts a portrait of the entire black experience in the U.K. As the picture is developing all the time, it only makes sense that he’d add new verses as needed. At the 2020 BRIT Awards, where he took home the award for Best Album for last year’s Psychodrama, Dave also barred up Boris Johnson:

“It is racist, whether or not it feels racist, the truth is our prime minister’s a real racist
They say—‘you should be grateful, we’re the least racist’
I say the least racist is still racist.”

“Charades,” Headie One & Fred again..

The same chimera eating a drum fan under a strobe light bass line is present in almost all drill music; the best songs lay incongruous sounds like violins and guitars over that skeletal beat, giving you moments of sunshine like Headie singing “all I know is money and beef” over a giant and windy piano riff.