Tame Impala play it a little too safe on ‘The Slow Rush’ (review)
Since releasing their decade-list-dominating 2015 album Currents, Tame Impala became the new standard for psych-pop and a contender for the Biggest Artist In Indie, and they still haven't been dethroned. Earlier in the decade, main member Kevin Parker wore his (John Lennon) influences on his sleeves, but by Currents, he had turned his version of Lennon-esque psych-pop into something he could call his own, and into something that tons of other artists -- from young indie bands to gigantic pop stars -- tried to replicate. As the band's stature grew, Currents continued to sound fresh. No matter how many years passed without a new Tame Impala album, and no matter how many other major artists borrowed Tame Impala's sound, Currents remained as exciting to listen to as it was the day it came out.
A followup to an album as larger than life as Currents is never easy, especially when an artist keeps delaying it. It's not impossible (just last year, competing Biggest Artist In Indie Vampire Weekend did it), but it can be disastrous. Tame Impala's followup is now finally here, and thankfully it's not a disaster, but it isn't a very triumphant return either. The context of how you approach an album obviously affects the way you think about it, and maybe The Slow Rush will reveal more of its appeal after the hype dies down (like M83's impossibly-anticipated, underrated-at-first Junk), but if you're approaching The Slow Rush as someone who's been eagerly waiting five years for a new Tame Impala album, it can feel kinda like "...that's it?"
As on Currents, Kevin's voice is angelic, his basslines are killer, his rhythms are groovy, his melodies go down easy, and it's clearly a well-crafted album, one that many of Kevin's imitators can probably only hope to achieve. But while Currents was a massive leap from 2012's Lonerism, and that album was a clear improvement on Tame Impala's 2010 debut Innerspeaker, this new one kinda just finds Tame Impala coasting on the same sound they did better five years ago. Any of the Slow Rush songs could retroactively be tacked onto Currents without anyone blinking an eye, and with nothing as catchy as "Let It Happen" or "Eventually" or "The Less I Know the Better" or "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," the new songs wouldn't function as much beyond pleasant deep cuts.
I'd like to give Kevin the benefit of the doubt and say maybe he wanted to write more of a mood album, one that creates a vibe rather hits you with pop songs, like Angel Olsen, Danny Brown, Tool, and Nick Cave did so well last year. But those albums avoided being pigeonholed as "boring" by sucking you into their unique musical worlds and slowly revealing their thrills once you gave in to their less approachable exteriors. The Slow Rush is actually very approachable, and it's full of songs that would scan as "enjoyable" on first listen. I'm just not sure if the songs ever go deeper than that. The melodies are catchy, but the hooks never approach the cathartic pop bliss of Currents. The rhythms are hypnotic, but they fall short of really taking you there like the mid-section of "Let It Happen" or the trippier parts of Lonerism.
The rhythms are also the one thing that most clearly separate The Slow Rush from Currents. If Currents was a basslines-first record, then this one's definitely a drums-first record, and the way Kevin seamlessly combines rhythms from new wave, disco, yacht rock, synthpop, hip hop, and more is no small feat. Kevin is perhaps even more of a studio wiz on this album than he was on Currents, and in that respect, The Slow Rush is a minor triumph, a well-executed exercise in genre-bending production. Studio obsession has long been a key part of the psych-pop lineage that Kevin Parker is part of, and Kevin is doing it in a modern way that even his heroes didn't do in their time. The difference, though, is that when Brian Wilson was getting The Wrecking Crew to sound like jewelry and The Beatles were reversing their tapes, they always remembered to make their psych-pop pop.