Beach House put out a pretty wacky press release when they announced their upcoming album a few weeks ago. In it, the dream pop duo discusses their return to basics on the new album, vowing to eschew some of the more aggressive instrumentation of their past two releases. They close the release by declaring that they are going to “continue to let [themselves] evolve while fully ignoring the commercial context in which we exist.”
These sorts of proclamations get into the murky territory of “selling out,” the tricky balance of taking a very personal, intimate sound and translating it to a much larger fan base and the festival circuit. Some, like Beach House apparently, defy these forces, retreating to their meat-and-potatoes sound and not letting their commercial ascension mess with the music that caused that very commercial ascension. Others, like Tame Impala on Currents, give themselves over to the wider fan base, attuning the “size” of their music to the size of their crowds. Neither approach is wrong, though a failure with the latter method tends to sting a bit more. It’s a louder failure.
To be clear: Currents is no failure. It’s just a bit confusing. Whereas previous releases from Kevin Parker’s project (2010’s Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism) dealt firmly in ‘60s and ‘70s psych-rock/pop revivalism, Currents is some sort of blend of ‘80s psych pop. Though Lonerism and Innerspeaker can be big, sweeping records at times, they still have a very real intimacy to them. They deal with interiority very directly, with track names like “Solitude Is Bliss” and “Expectation” and “Mind Mischief” and “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” There’s a reason this music has struck such a chord; it’s relatable and smart while remaining catchy and well-crafted. Currents, meanwhile, delivers us a changed Parker wielding a changed sound.
The album opens with the stunning “Let It Happen.” Since its release as the lead single in March, I’ve maintained that this is quite possibly the strongest Tame Impala track to date. It’s detailed and groovy and makes the very most of its eight minutes. It also works as a rousing opener, setting forward the album-long mission statement of embracing the neuroses and fears that formed that basis of previous Tame Impala albums. Then in comes “Nangs,” as quick and fleeting a delight as the nitrous oxide for which it’s named. “Nangs” is actually one of three songs on the album that clock in under two minutes (in fact “Gossip” is only 55 seconds and is really more of an interlude than a song). These songs, including the 1:49-long “Disciples”, are fantastic and make up some of the best moments on the album. And although this may be an unfair criticism given the quality of these little morsels, I really wish he had expanded on the sounds explored on these tracks. They’re some of the more experimental, textured, weird moments. The fact that they’re tossed aside so quickly speaks to the albums largest problem: the sudden inclusion of dull, repetitive R&B-infused pop songs.
Kevin Parker does not have the voice nor the sonic tendencies to be messing with slower pop ballads, yet on “Cause I’m A Man”, “Yes I’m Changing” and “Past Life” he does just that. It’s such a waste. “Yes I’m Changing” is perfectly serviceable and pleasant, but the slowed tempo makes the lyrical failures all the more blatant. The song just sounds trite, maybe even whiny. Such hollowness and silliness have never showed up like this on a Tame Impala track. Yet it happens again on “Past Life,” which can really only be summed up as a bizarre, vocoder-laced miscalculation. The song’s blend of vocoder and pop balladry makes very little sense and is pretty much a failure in every regard. It kind of just brings the album down.
What is it coming down from? The wonderful “Less I Know The Better,” which is far and away the best dance track Parker has ever produced. Amid all the missteps around it, “Less I Know The Better” really proves that Parker has an ear for great pop music. If there’s a strain of this album to glom onto as “good sonic evolution,” this is it. Let’s see more of it on LP4.
In total, Currents has some great songs, but just isn’t a great album. While some of these songs will certainly be ones I come back to again and again, there are far too many skippable tracks. They’re either actively bad songs (“Past Life”, “Cause I’m A Man”) or just don’t seem to provide anything thematically crucial when you listen to the album front to back. It’s a disappointment, especially when you consider the cohesion of his last two records. But the relief is that Kevin Parker hasn’t lost “it.” He still shows flashes of genius. He can still write beautiful pop songs. His tendency to wander and try new things is what makes him great—but unfortunately it’s also what keeps this particular album from reach greatness.