Let’s begin our celebration of Tame Impala, Currents, and their barnstorming 2015 with one crucial admission: The act that we at Consequence of Sound have named band of the year is really just one Australian dude named Kevin Parker. That might have been obvious at the outset to Tame Impala diehards, but for everyone else, the depersonalized nom de guerre and enduring conventions of the psychedelic guitar rock band help obscure that no matter how you slice it, Tame Impala is a solo act.
Before Currents, Tame Impala’s band-ness was more believable. Lonerism and Innerspeaker are looser, guitar-oriented albums that feel like products of hazy collaboration between multiple actors, albeit with Parker at the reins. This was deliberate if not entirely accurate: “The fact that it ever sounded like a band was just a decision of mine to try and make it sound like a band because I was into band music,” Parker told Consequence of Sound earlier this year. “But we never recorded as a band. It’s always just been me.”
Currents marked Parker’s readiness to own his leading role. Perhaps it just wasn’t possible to keep up the pretense: Despite the multitude of sounds on Currents, every song sounds so cohesive that it could only be made by one person. The keyboards, synths, guitars – often you can’t tell the difference and it mostly doesn’t matter – ebb and flow, billow, and subside. “Let It Happen” is a masterpiece, and that’s just the first track. Currents is calculated yet effortless, an album with most of the fat and filler carefully trimmed off. When it missteps, it’s because Parker has made decisions that would have been vetoed had he gotten a second opinion.
Parker’s comments on the making of Currents reveal a fascinating tension between his bold step forward into the spotlight and the insecurity that dogs his creative process. On one hand, Parker could only stamp his authorship on Currents because he reached a certain level of self-confidence that let him cast aside the “security blanket” of being a member of a band. He said, “It was always such a security to hide behind five dudes and say, ‘We all did this. If it sucks, it’s not just my fault.’” He was finally ready to embrace the producer label he’s shunned but secretly identified with for years. His bio on Tame Impala’s website is absolutely clear about the album’s provenance: “Currents was written, performed, recorded, produced and mixed by Kevin Parker.” There’s a great amount of pride in those words.
But it’s hard to break free from old neuroses, and anyone who’s spent some time with Tame Impala’s lyrics knows that Parker tends to stay too long in his own head. Parker told Pitchfork that the prospect of making Currents alone “add[ed] a completely extra dimension of absolute nervous breakdowns.” He often clamped down on his perfectionism and anxiety with the flat statement “It doesn’t fucking matter.” He’d stared so long into Currents’ bones that at the end of it all, he concluded, “I still think this album is completely unlistenable.”
There’s an uncomplicated, rapturous part of me that refuses to indulge Parker’s self-deprecation. He’s an incredibly talented musician who made an album that’s fulfilling for both creator and listener, goddammit! Why won’t Parker just accept the rock star mantle he so clearly deserves? At the same time, it’s not hard to understand how insecurity and confidence can mingle in one mind. You know you’re good and you want to put your name on the work you do. But arrogance is barely fashionable in today’s culture, and for all the agony it induces, you still believe that your insecurity acts as a quality controller that keeps you in a modest place where there’s always opportunity for improvement. It’s a contemporary creative struggle anyone can relate to, whether you’re writing a novel, playing a sport, or making a career-defining album.
It’s also a struggle listeners can appreciate Parker for grappling with: he makes music with a degree of intention that speaks to how much the man cares about his chosen path as a musician. It’s a commitment that has set Parker in firm opposition to stylistic elitism and rock snobbery: He steeped Currents in soul and R&B and made three songs with pop producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson on January’s Uptown Special. He’s written songs with Kylie Minogue in mind and covered her song “Confide in Me” on Australian radio last month.
Parker’s distaste for boundaries extends to his extremely chill take on current debates on how artists are paid for their art. In September, he told Mary Anne Hobbs of BBC Radio 6 that “if someone says, ‘Hey man, I love your album, it really got me through a breakup, but I downloaded it for free,’ I’ll be like, ‘Good! That’s good!’ Maybe he didn’t have the money for the album, but if he still listened to it and it’s an important part of his life, that’s all I can ask for. I don’t want his 20 bucks.” In June, he “was as surprised and interested as anyone” when BMG sued his old label, Modular, for unpaid royalties over the sales of Lonerism and Innerspeaker. It might be naive of him to not give a shit about the $450,000 that had gone missing, he admitted, but “I just find it counter-productive to get worked up over it,” he told The Music. He wrote on Reddit in April that “there’s all this talk of music needing a monetary value, this ownership of music, even that it needs a physical form. But intrinsically … it’s MUSIC, it should be better than that.”
Parker bucks many of the trends in today’s music-listening world, a place and age where we expect more than music from musicians. We want musicians to take strident stands on multiple extra-musical things, whether it’s the economics of streaming services, feminism, or other social issues. Their politics and ethics are up for ever-increasing scrutiny. More than ever, public figures in entertainment are often expected to be perfect – or at least, not problematic. In such an environment, Parker comes across as old-fashioned, laughably idealistic, or even irresponsible, depending who you ask. But his singular focus on music and his laissez-faire attitude to just about everything else is undeniably refreshing. Tame Impala is a band you go to when you want to be cocooned in sound, away from the demanding, exhausting world. The pressures of society stay unremitting, and the musical escape Kevin Parker provides remains essential.