Modern psychedelic records are a lot of things. Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes melded The Beatles with Philly soul to concoct his own patented brand of depressed sex jams; Super Furry Animals mimicked David Bowie’s space rock excursions; and Australian upstarts Pond paid tribute to psychedelia’s golden age, aping Cream’s heavy riffage and Robert Plant’s shrieks of womb-envy with equal aplomb, while throwing in some flute-playing to please the nine people who were really missing Jethro Tull (don’t worry, Tull fans — one of them is my dad). But one thing these records aren’t is, well, modern. At their best, they come off as wink-filled revivalism; at its worst, they’re a pastiche of what was once a sound at the forefront of sonic experimentation. While Animal Collective’s adventurous soundscapes indisputably carry psychedelia’s torch, it seems that we were missing a forward-looking group that still believed in the infinite possibilities of guitars, effects pedals and amps turned up to 11.
Tame Impala seeks to rectify this with its sophomore effort, Lonerism. The brainchild of Kevin Parker, who played almost every instrument in the studio, the album is a sonic stunner: synths whirl, guitar phasers whoosh and the bass is fuzzed out as all hell. And the drums? Gosh, the drums just sound wonderful; distorted snares cut through the warm guitar tones with amazing clarity. Producer Dave Fridmann, himself a psychedelic troubadour as part of cult favorites Mercury Rev, does beautiful work here. What could have easily been an overcrowded, overstuffed soundscape instead sounds clear as a bell. Psychedelic records are often accused of blown-out maximalism — we’re looking at you, Flaming Lips’ Embryonic — but Lonerism shows that Parker knows that it’s about the quality, and not the quantity, of sounds.
Parker’s songwriting has been taken up a notch as well. Investing in a home studio was very wise, as he’s learned to utilize studio tricks in the construction of his songs, much as a dance producer would. On “Be Above It,” the pulse is set by a looping, whispered vocal sample. “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” — a depressing song title if there ever was one — interlopes two separate but equal choruses to dizzying effect, as Parker samples his own voice from before to make his sighing delivery of “I thought I was happy” all the more distant. And “Elephant,” a chugging rocker in which Parker disparages a man who shakes his “great big trunk” for the hell of it (Freud alert: it’s about a big penis), has an indelible moment where the song goes silent and, after a warning of “here it comes,” rushes back in with an absolutely demonic-sounding wah effect.
I’d be slighting Tame Impala if I said that Lonerism was all studio trickery. “Feels Like I Only Go Backwards” bears an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon’s more soulful, rocking solo work; it doesn’t hurt that Parker’s voice sounds eerily like Lennon’s heavily reverberated croon on Revolver’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Lead single “Apocalypse Dreams” is downright symphonic when it breaks into its triumphantly melancholic half-time section, and penultimate track “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Can Control” (nominated for The Sun’s Longest Song Title of the Year Award) starts dreamily before devolving into cacophony, all outlandishly fast arpeggios and tom-tom happy drums fills. Only the McCartney-esque album closer “Sun’s Coming Up” — more a post-script than a climax — falls flat, though its meditative outro does much to salvage it.
Above all, Lonerism is a record about isolation, loneliness and being lost in your own head. Its lyrics are rather cynical and resigned, rife with uncertainty about the human condition and futility. A sense of longing rings through even the album’s most accessible and melodically buoyant moments (which are plentiful, indeed). Still, despite the downer sentiment, I wouldn’t mind being inside Kevin Parker’s head if it sounds this good.