Is psychedelic rock still a thing in 2015?
Sure, there are enough psych bands in existence to fill out the Austin Psych Fest and its sister happenings, and it’s nigh impossible to watch a cable drama without hearing The Black Angels soundtracking the credits. Yet the psychedelic craze, which peaked in the late ’60s, is now more of an influence than a genre. For every psychedelic rock band, there are one hundred bands in various rock sub-genres, many who take bits and pieces of psychedelic rock and ultimately incorporate it into something entirely different. Many former neo-psychedelic mainstays even found that turning straight rock and pop (or, in the case of the Flaming Lips, becoming a bad imitation of the Butthole Surfers) ended becoming ultimately more rewarding, at least from a commercial standpoint.
Perhaps that’s why Tame Impala is a disco band now. After two albums of psychedelic guitar- and synth-driven rock, Kevin Parker opted to not get pigeonholed as a psych artist and move on to a completely different track. The change should work in theory, but it has boring songs and awful lyrics working against it.
Lonerism and its predecessor, Innerspeaker, were enjoyable records that presented interesting musical concepts. Sure, they were filled with moments that were recognizable from 50 years of psych rock records before them, but they were worth a few listens and maybe a return every once in a while — just like ’00s-era Flaming Lips records. It’s hard to argue they were revolutionary when the sound and the songs were done before by everyone in Austin, San Fransisco, and elsewhere, but they were pretty okay on their own.
Currents follows the trend, but replace “psych” with a handful of dance genres in the last 40 years. Each track cherry picks influences from disco and electro/dance history, puts them in a blender, and adds cringeworthy lyrics detailing various parts of a break-up and a relationship — a first not only for recorded music, but for this year/month, so I’m told. If you were to walk into a room while Currents played on laptop speakers, you might not be able to tell the difference between a song on the album and, say, something on Songs from the Big Chair or a pre-roll movie theater intro from the ’80s telling you where the snacks and exits are located. It is barely indistinguishable from the dance stuff you hear on the radio or in the club late at night, albeit less formulaic and written by one person instead of 15.
I listened to the album ten times since its release, but I was able to understand it the best after a sobering train ride home and unwinding at 2 a.m. on a weekend. If you’re in a quiet house after a long night and all you hear are random ambient noises and Currents playing in the background, then it makes sense. It’s a pretty relaxing album, despite uptempo numbers and a heightened sense of energy, and I fully understand who it appeals to, why it’s talked about everywhere (aside from heavy marketing, but c’mon, we’re talking about a UMG band here), and in what context it works. Still, if I were in the mood for a slightly dancey, synth-heavy album worth listening to, I’ll probably stick to Sprits Having Flown in the future.
So why did Kevin Parker decide to move to ersatz disco if he can’t really pull it off? Why didn’t he just stick with psych rock as the spokesperson of a new generation? Why disco? Though it’s commendable for the artist to try something new and out of his comfort zone, it doesn’t land. Instead, Tame Impala became another group with synthesizer, who make music that sounds like all other music instead of doing something inventive with them.