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On Their Third Album, Tame Impala Achieve Psych-Rock Nirvana

Tame Impala’s “‘Cause I’m a Man” music video.

Psychedelia is, once again, having a mainstream musical moment. Not long ago, pretty-boy Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky released his bona fide acid album, At.Long.Last.A$AP, a groggy but blissed-out odyssey featuring ambling, gently warped tracks like “L$D.” (That’s not to be confused with Chance the Rapper’s aptly titled 2013 mix tape Acid Rap, which also warrants mentioning.) Then, in June, Miguel put out his bold Wildheart, a swirling, sprawling exploration of psychedelic, guitar-driven R&B. All the while, Miley Cyrus has been making a record with perennial space cadets the Flaming Lips — when she’s not posting to the world’s most hallucinogenic Instagram feed. Who’s to say why this is happening — maybe the imminent legalization and subsequent de-edgification of weed has self-aware rebels scrambling for higher (and slightly more illegal) ground. But whatever the reason, 2015’s proving to be a trippy year. Which means it’s a funny time for Tame Impala, the most beloved psych-rock band in years, to release a dance album.

Tame Impala — named for the antelope, not the Chevy — is essentially one guy, 29-year-old Kevin Parker from Perth, Australia. Front man perhaps connotes something too extroverted to describe his role in the band; he’s more of a sonic architect, constructing soundscapes in his studio and then later bringing on some touring members to air the material live. (The titles of the first two Tame Impala albums, 2010’s Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism, speak volumes about Parker’s creative process and personality.) In an interview around the time that Innerspeaker was released Parker professed a love for “the kind of music that’s, like, the result of one person or a few people constructing an awesome symphony of sound. You can layer your own voice 700 times for half a second if you want.” And often, it sounded like he did; both of those albums were very good, but they also had a kind of look-at-what-we-can-do maximalism that was occasionally off-putting. Which is not an unforgivable crime — when you’re a tinkerer like Parker, that’s just what you do on your first couple of records. But as Tame Impala’s sublime third album, Currents, proves, he’s realized how much more he can do with less.

Currents arrives complete with the perfect psych-meets-dance-music creation myth: Parker has said the idea for the record came to him when he was listening to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” on mushrooms. And like an audacious Gibb neckline, Currents has a confidence that the previous Tame Impala albums sometimes lacked; the dazzling eight-minute opener “Let It Happen” is, yes, eight minutes long, but it’s still an exercise in minimalism and restraint. It’s got a tight, repetitive groove, but there are thrills in the pattern breaks, like when the mechanical beat suddenly stutters like a rhythmically malfunctioning machine. As with much of the record, “Let It Happen” occasionally recalls Daft Punk’s 2001 culture shifter Discovery, and it serves a similar sequential function as that album’s “One More Time” — a jet blast out of the stratosphere and into the colorful world you’ll be inhabiting for the next 50 minutes. With its clean lines and sleek surfaces, Currents is an achievement in design as much as melody; to listen to it often feels like being inside an exceptionally comfortable commercial spaceship, like the ones Richard Branson is no doubt designing.

Although Innerspeaker and Lonerism both showed Parker to possess a sonic imagination that extended beyond pastiche, they also harked back rather obviously to ’60s and ’70s rock. There was something uncanny about Tame Impala’s particular game of spot-the-influence; writer Jayson Greene once described Parker’s vocals as sounding “like someone trapped John Lennon’s vocal take from ‘A Day in the Life’ in a jar and taught it to sing new songs.” The Lennon affect has dissolved on Currents, and Parker has hit on something approaching a signature vocal style, a soft-edged falsetto that diffuses into the atmosphere around him. Which means he can pull off the liquid funk of “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” or give a tonal continuity to the epic “Eventually” as it pivots between a Black Sabbath–esque riff and a chorus you could hear on adult-contemporary radio. Tame Impala is a rock band unafraid of softness, and some of the album’s most inspired moments are delicate flirtations with schmaltzy ’80s pop. My favorite song on the album is probably “The Moment,” which hinges on a chorus that sounds like the hand bells from Naked Eyes’ “Always Something There to Remind Me” let loose in zero gravity.

As with most practitioners of lonerism, Parker is prone to getting a little stuck in his own head, and many of Currents’ songs are about rising above the mental chatter and achieving internal peace: “It’s always around me, all this noise / But not nearly as loud as the voice saying, let it happen.” Miraculously, given that New Age–y lyrical slant, Currents’ only slip into actual cheese is “Past Life,” an ode to an ex-flame centered on a spoken-word piece that calls to mind the Aussie cousin of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” robot covering “Marvin’s Room.” But this small blunder makes you appreciate the intelligence on display for the rest of the album — how easily it would have been for Parker to stray into the realm of bloated pretension, how wisely he keeps himself in check.

Guitars have been an endangered species for years, and revivalists have had difficulty resonating with younger listeners in a world where EDM is looking like this generation’s rock and roll. But Tame Impala has found a way to bridge the gap without pandering — becoming the rock band that dance kids can admit to liking. Currents has every mark of a deserved breakthrough; it should bump the band up a few more notches on the Coachella poster. The secret might be Parker’s love of making “guitars sound like synths and drums sound like drum samples”; rock music is allowed to be more modern than something Jack White wants you to play on a Victrola. “I’m obsessed with confusing people as to the origin of a sound,” Parker has said. Scrambling perceptions is the oldest trick in the psychedelic book, but Currents sounds fresh enough to fool a new generation into thinking he invented it.

*This article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Music Review: Tame Impala’s Currents