Review Summary: This is a beautiful Synth Odyssey
How far can an artist take emulating one of their idols before it becomes overly familiar to the point of retreading on ideas that have been swirling around our pop culture and respective conscious' for decades? Does said emulator lose any semblance of authenticity or do they simply get a pass as being one of the dozens upon dozens of contemporary acts that pull a significant amount of influence from their musical heroes? Or can it be looked at as not being so black and white? A case could be made that the noticeable mimicry does a lot to help new listeners ease in to an artist's material (assuming they've heard and enjoyed the original musician(s) being mirrored). But on the other side of that coin it could also do a lot to hinder one's listening experience as the call backs to what they've already heard numerous times (and possibly done better) can constantly take them out of the song and or album they're trying to listen to. Just looking at this year alone I've run into both situations multiple times. I found my self struggling to find any enjoyment from projects such as "Mr. Wonderful" by Action Bronson and My Morning Jacket's new LP "The Waterfall," and a big reason for that is because of their blatant replication of musical ideas done by artists such as Ghostface Killah and The Beatles respectively (among many other 60s and 70s bands in the case of "The Waterfall"). But at the same time I absolutely adore Your Old Droog and his EP "Kinison" and he is obviously pulling a lot of influence from Nas, so what's the difference between the two? Why do I love one and dislike the other? Well for one it's not to be implied that the only reason I like or oppose any of these projects/artists is because of their emulating alone. That's not the situation. They play more of an aesthetic gateway than anything, but an important one; and I think what separates them is the way they go about doing it. In the case of artists like Action Bronson and My Morning Jacket they implement the large amounts of emulating but then do nothing interesting or ambitious with it in order to build their own captivating personalities or separate them selves from those who influence them. While in the case of Your Old Droog he has taken all that he can from Nas and other East Coast Hip Hop veterans and molded his own distinct sound and style. It's about finding a happy middle ground between an artist showcasing their love and respect for an idol while also putting their creativity and individuality in the forefront. A balance that the Kevin Parker led Psychedelic/Indie Rock group Tame Impala has mastered in spades.
The comparisons of similarities between Kevin's cadences to John Lennon's are about as overstated as Hopsin's to Eminem's, but not without ground. The guy sounds A LOT like John Lennon and I don't see how there's any getting around that, or even why anyone would want to. Lennon has always been my favorite vocalist from The Beatles and Parker brings the same level of intimacy that he did. Kevin has certainly done plenty since "Innerspeaker" to showcase his own nuances that separate him from John and come in to his own, but I'll admit that every time I hear him pull off those fantastic vocal melodies it brings a smile to my face and fills me with nostalgic joy. But not once on this entire LP does the group let their influences take over and set their song writing on autopilot.
There is a full sonic focus for this album and it is beautiful. This might be my favorite produced project of the year (so far) which given that albums like "To Pimp A Butterfly," "Compton," "Izah," "The Powers That B," "Algiers," "Luminiferous," "Vulnicura," "Frozen Niagra Falls," "Abyss," and "Never Were The Way She Was" are floating around that's saying a lot. And it's not like it's an accomplishment the album was expected to earn because of some alignment in the stars that caused my tastes to perfectly reflect the decisions made by Parker and the boys. That's certainly not the case. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome in the trade of this album and my liking of it. I have a very refined ear for synthesizers and how they're intigrated into a sonic pallet, so unfortunately more often than not I find that contemporary blends of Synth Pop with any style of music result in a dud. Either the synths are too farty and cheap or there's nothing done to flesh them out and you end up with a track trying to be a large sonic ear full and instead you get an underwhelming blend of bombastic drums and thin synths resulting in an instrumental that thinks it's a lot bigger than it really is. It just becomes too hard to swallow and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I also tend to be completely turned off by reverb soaked vocals, but an extremely strong decision was made to turn the vocals up in the mix as opposed to letting them fall in the background and get buried by the instrumentals like most contemporary Indie groups do when dabbling in reverb. And because of this we get much more well rounded sounding tracks with plenty of personality coming from the vocal department and a perfectly synchronized vocal and instrumental through line. Just overall a perfect engineering job and one that gives me hopes for a brighter future in reverb centric Indie Rock.
A knight may have fantastic armor but how is he as a fighter? In other words the aesthetic, mixing and sonic direction may be handled tastefully but how are the actual songs? It's hard to say whether or not I actually dislike one. I mean the portions of spoken monolgue in the intro and first bridge on "Past Life" are a little hoaky, but as soon as that sub bass kicks in and the addictive chours swells over all is forgiven and forgotten. The compositions almost across the bored are excellent and very rarely does a track falter in comparison to its predecessors and successors, but even though the 51 minute total run time on this project is perfect and never overstays its welcome a few songs might have benefited from a more fleshed out rewrite. On the second track "Nangs" Parker took a bass centered synth chord and muffled it to the point of being undescript but gave it an abrasive wobble in order to carry a rhythm. It's an excellent idea that pays off as the perfect catalyst for a series of more direct synth lines and vocal molidies that carry the track out in a criminally short lived minute and forty-eight seconds. That cut, the fully instrumental "Gossip," and heavily Beach Boys inspired "Disciples" are the only three tracks I find my self desiring more from once they're over. But at the very least it can be said that they're all excellent for the short amount of time that they're playing.
The nearly eight minute "Let It Happen" was the perfect way to introduce this album in terms of setting the tone, but It becomes very apparent that this wasn't going to be another "Lonerism." The synths are much more textured and fat than on past Tame Impala releases, and the lack of guitars on this track showcase that this is no longer just a Psychedelic Rock group. Across the thirteen cuts we get blends of Dream Pop, Disco, Chamber Pop and especially Synth Pop. It's all done so graciously and with such attention to detail that the transition from "Lonerism" is very smooth. But on the four tracks where we do get guitars put in the forefront ("Yes I'm Changing," "Eventually," "The Less I Know The Better," and the previously mentioned "Disciples") no lack of effort is shown. Parker doesn't allow his new obsession with synthesizers to make him neglect other compsitional duties. All of this LP's structural transitions are flawless. With the skip induced sample placed in the middle of the aforementioned "Let It Happen" and sub bass, high hat and clap that are intigrated into the bridge of "The Moment" make for the perfect subdued detours and breaks from all of the psychedelic synth chord progressions and synthetic drums that surround them. Allowing a moment for the instrumentals to breathe while also setting up the for next musical passage(s).
This is one of those albums where there is so much interesting ear candy that if you chose to just focus on the sonic land scape and put the lyrics on the back burner you could still enjoy your self, but if you're like me then you'll want to dig into the lyrical content at least a little. Given the more cloudy atmosphere that surrounds this album Parker's lyrics are decidedly more abstract, but not so heady and vague that you can't understand the underlying ideas. I picked up on themes of finding yourself in this world even when against all odds as the alternative is a life of shutting everyone and everything else around you out, and multiple perspective in delving in more grounded issues with personal relationships.
Overall this is a beautiful Synth Odyssey full of lush production, consistently interesting compsitions, personal yet also abstract lyrics, aesthetically enticing atmosphere, perfect vocal melodies, addictive chourses and the tracklist is sequenced in the most cohesive fashion possible. There are a few tracks the could use some fleshing out and I'm not totally sold on "Past Lives," but those are minor issues in an overall incredible album. I think this is Tame Impala's strongest release to date and one of the year's best.