There’s a half-remembered quality to Kevin Parker’s songs for Tame Impala. Melodies and rhythms arrive in thunderclaps — carefully orchestrated or artfully accidental — or float by in soothing clouds. These are the epiphanies and freakouts of decades past: soul, space rock, nerd funk, studio-whiz pop. You feel sure you recognize something, but you don’t quite know from where or when.
For Parker, that quality is the point. Traveling the world with Tame Impala for the past five years, the 29-year-old Australian musician has captured song ideas and the ambient sounds of touring in his head, on his phone, with whatever’s handy. A home recorder since age 12, he works in the studio largely on his own: Tame Impala is his way of making sense (or not) of experience. His first two albums were a fun-house tour of rock’s psychedelic corners; even at its loudest, the music always had a languorous, contemplative quality. Yet the sound of Currents, Tame Impala’s third studio album, goes further, evoking Prince more than Pink Floyd. The guitar rides in the back, the keyboards up front. The beats have a synthesized snap even when they’re live drums, and even the dreamiest tracks pack a pop bounce.
Weightless R&B abounds, from the gloriously hazy “The Less I Know the Better” to the finger-snapping “ ’Cause I’m a Man.” The opener, “Let It Happen,” jumps off from distant funk guitar and a phased melody that seems lifted from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” before disappearing in a wash of echoed vocals and muted drums. The gong-banging glam guitar of Tame Impala’s 2012 alt-rock hit “Elephant” returns for a few seconds, then gives way to Daft Punk robot vocals. Often on Currents it feels like you’ve camped out in a middle spot at a festival, halfway between a mainstage rock headliner and the dance tent.
In a sense, you have. Much of this album is about transformation, as you can guess from song titles like “Yes I’m Changing” (“And if you don’t think it’s a crime,” he sings, “you can come along with me”). For Parker, who’s used his music to both retreat from and encounter the outside world, this metamorphosis is more personal than musical — there’s an ocean of feelings inside that can’t be hidden forever. But he’s also a professed Michael Jackson fan who’s been flirting with pop melodies for years. When “The Moment” begins with the chords to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” it’s the sound of Parker coming clean with pleasure.
And why shouldn’t he? Parker is perhaps the most prominent member of a class of young musicians that is creating some of today’s most spectacularly catchy music by being backward-looking and forward-thinking at the same time. Like Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi, Ruban Neilson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and even A$AP Rocky, Parker has figured out how to use what’s come before without any anxiety about his ability to make it modern. Even if his explorations only get him as far as his next song, it’s a trip worth taking.