Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush
While giving a tour of her home, the British cultural critic Olivia Laing walks through her garden and explains the relief that comes from working on a living, growing thing as opposed to something as finite as a book. There is, she tells the video channel Nowness, “no moment of perfection” in a garden: “You’re always sort of changing things and tweaking things. I don’t have to finish it and deliver it; I can play with it forever.”
It’s this same temptation – to assess and revise and endlessly find new things to change – that seems to be responsible for the belated delivery of Tame Impala’s fourth record, The Slow Rush. Arriving now, five years since the Perth psych-pop project of Kevin Parker officially entered the mainstream with Currents, it comes after a time line of well-documented false starts and psych-outs. Torn between a longing for an idealised past, a fear of how rapidly things are changing and a desperation to keep moving forward, The Slow Rush serves as a direct transmission from Parker’s mind. The record captures his obsession with time and sees Parker watching the clock, stuck in routine, re-examining relationships and falling headfirst into sonic nostalgia.
His work has been entrenched in that space for a decade now, and he’s partially responsible for the re-emergence of psychedelia in popular music, but there’s more to this than just pastiche. Tame Impala is a project that, for so long, was described with a horde of referential buzzwords: Yacht-rock but for millennials! Psychedelia for people who bought their Grateful Dead T-shirts at consignment stores! Perhaps this was reductive of the project’s scope and ambition, but it was also a convenient shorthand that maximised Tame Impala’s appeal.
On the sprawling “Breathe Deeper”, the familiar synths and distortions are still there, but they bleed into funk and disco textures now. Like the bulk of the record, these genre experiments are respectful, and Parker approaches nostalgia with more sentimentality than novelty. He also leans into the organic quality of instruments on this record. Drums clatter in the background of “It Might Be Time” over the whir of a siren, giddy keys and a palette more glam-rock than psych-rock. The same attention to detail is here, but it feels looser and more human.
The six-minute sonic collage of “Breathe Deeper” fuzzes out abruptly before it descends into a wormhole of warped space without returning to the surface. But at the end of the next track, “Tomorrow’s Dust”, a tinny echo of “Breathe Deeper” can be heard again in the distance, beneath the sound of a woman’s voice talking, as if she’s offloading the night’s events to a friend in the tiled bathroom of a club that’s blasting the new Tame Impala record. Suddenly we’re the ones looking back, reminiscing about a flash of sound from the very recent past.
Dust, sand, debris and remnants of long-lost things are a recurring theme on the record and its accompanying imagery. Parker enlisted photographer Neil Krug to shoot the cover art, which vividly shows the ghost town of Kolmanskop. A former diamond mine in southern Namibia, it’s famous for the images of stately rooms filled knee- and sometimes neck-deep in sand that has accumulated over time. The images are beautiful and distressing; they make us aware of a world with no more people. Imagining yourself in those rooms may be the closest you come to mining the ruins of your own life. But in this record, Parker has conjured something more like a tabletop Zen garden: it has a beginning and an end, it has limits, it has been arranged and adjusted – the sand is contained and can’t spill out of control for an endless stretch of time anymore.
Parker’s perfectionist tendencies are well known, and he’s spent the better part of the past year fielding questions about where Tame Impala’s next album was, when it was coming, why it wasn’t finished. In October, when he announced the release of “It Might Be Time” on social media, he joked that the drums on the track were responsible for a quarter of “the last four billion years” he’d spent working on the record. He also wrote: “There are all sorts of excuses i could serve you but it basically all comes down to me hating the idea of giving you anything that isn’t the best my entire heart and soul and brain can give.” Four months earlier, in a BBC interview, he had said that “a small part of you dies every time you make an album”. People’s desire to hear more from him seemed like a punishing request.
Isolation and self-doubt have permeated his project since the beginning, and no number of awards or accolades from respected artists have been strong enough to extinguish the anxious and introverted tendencies that Parker still draws on lyrically. Those same tendencies have more recently been regarded as the rightful property of a younger generation – of artists such as Billie Eilish, Alessia Cara and Lorde, whose lyrical desperation to be rescued from parties and teen hell have made them poster children for disaffected youth. But although Parker is 34, he remains king of the outcasts.
For years, as Tame Impala’s profile and popularity grew, Parker was framed as a member of a band, shy and determinedly isolated. After he spent years hiding in press photos and on stages, it was revealed he wrote and composed every sound on every record by himself, and that the band were friends he had trusted to translate his auteurist vision into live settings. In his interviews over the past decade, “we” and “us” slowly dissolved into “I” and “me”. During this time, he became every musician’s favourite musician, popping up on stage with John Mayer or in the studio with Kanye West or in collaboration with Mark Ronson. He got married and split his time between Fremantle and the Hollywood Hills. His life and career became a picture of abundance. It’s notable then that The Slow Rush serves as a rickety old overhead projector, wheeled out by a substitute teacher, and beaming out an image of Parker, alone as ever. The song “Borderline”, which Tame Impala premiered on Saturday Night Live last March, sees Parker singing of the crushing weight of winding up as a loser and a loner “once again”.
Over the shuddering beat of the album’s opening track, “One More Year”, Parker begins to reckon with the concept of a year in different ways – 52 weeks, seven days each, four seasons – as if assuring himself he can cope with its passing. By the time he arrives at the track’s twin flame, the grandiose closer “One More Hour”, he’s reoriented and is now thinking just of moments. He’s also thinking of himself singularly: “Whatever I’ve done, I did it for love … for fun … for fame … not for my future children,” he sings over a thunder of drums that give way to simple piano, as he reiterates the need to spend time alone to remember who he is.
“It’s so selfish to make art,” Olivia Laing said after wandering through her garden and settling in at her dining table. “… The psychic room that you make art from, you have to defend it. You have to defend it against love, sometimes. And that’s so weird, but essential.” Perhaps stepping away from everyone – whether for six months or four billion years or just a few moments – with an understanding of his need for solitude, and forgiving himself for the selfish ramifications of that desire, freed Parker to defend the room he allows us into for these 57 special minutes. Time is fleeting, and once the door’s open, the dust starts to build up, so there’s no time to waste.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Gold Rush". Subscribe here.