If there is anything we’ve learned about music in the 21st century’s second decade, it is the uniquely innovative power of the music obsessed.
Before I go further let me clarify. Yes, for a couple of decades now we’ve had the record store equivalents of dumpster divers blowing our collective minds, here’s looking at you DJ Shadow, you know the kind, the “DJ’s” of the 90’s and early 2000’s who collectively changed our definition of what a DJ is and can be, and, perhaps inadvertently, for better and for worse, opened the door for the 21st century’s ubiquitous character, the producer as musician. (For the better part of that duality we’re looking at Daft Punk, and, for the worse, well, that’s neither here nor there.)
But where the musically over-literate of the 90’s and early 2000’s confined their nostalgia-inducing output to the recombination and retexturalization of music we forgot we loved and the sounds of which it was composed, the nostalgia-obsessed of the more recent 21st century have taken the concept one step further, using those sounds not as material but solely as influence, to create new music that sounds wholly familiar.
These are the post-grunge, post hip-hop, nostalgia-drenched, self-obsessed kids of the early 2000’s; the ones who came of age during the indie revolution’s tentative first steps and had unimagined access to every song ever recorded and the means, literally at their fingertips, to create sounds without the prohibitive cost of equipment. The bedroom producers, if you will, who took their awareness of the past-centric music-making of the early DJ’s and producers and their autodidactic knowledge of music theory and history, and developed a new musical language, a postmodern rock n’roll which, just as in literature, is a 21st century collage of everything that came before it. And just as in postmodern literature, to the 21st century kids, it all makes perfect sense.
Leading the pack of the nostalgia boom, it would seem, is Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker.
Before Parker started releasing singles off of Currents in late 2014, Tame Impala had been safely classified as psych rock, a genre of which he was certainly the 2010’s leader and one which, itself, leant heavily on the music-forward creations of the British and American bands of the 1960’s, blending the roots rock of the Guess Who and Foghat with the more trip-worthy rock of Cream and lovely, Paul McCartneyesque vocals, but doing it all with the heavy-hand of the 21st century producer and the requisite hyper-awareness of the power of obsessively hands-on production.
But Currents, as if Parker was sticking a middle finger at music critics innate need to classify, shatters the psych rock characterization completely. This is a pop record.
It’s still there, the guitar riffs, in Disciples or Reality in Motion as examples, but Currents is the equivalent of a musical mixtape of the 1970’s and 80’s, only this time, Parker’s soul, disco and prog updates are undeniably the sounds of the 21st century.
Past Life has Parker introducing a robotic voice with epic synthesizers which would have felt right at home in the soundtrack to Blade Runner, Total Recall or an Asia anthem. It’s indulgent and dramatic, sure, and it’s certainly trippy enough to be psychedelic thanks to the hazily distorted vocals Parker’s become known for, but it’s not rock.
Neither is the album’s first single, Let it Happen, a beat-forward disco update where-in Parker blends a healthy dose of synthesizers with a dance beat and a groovy vocal line over 7.5 minutes of pure house bliss.
All of this should be terrible. Cause I’m A Man and Yes I’m Changing have Parker giving us an updated take on R&B which dances dangerously close to the faux rhythm and soul of the 70’s and 80’s which helped turn Steve Winwood and Ambrosia into music my generation still can’t take seriously, but Parker makes it okay; strategically placed guitars which enter just as the song threatens to devolve into cheesy overload, and the rock ‘n roll equivalent of a bass drop (something we see quite frequently on Currents), which, as in many other songs on the album, lends itself to the epic dramatic heights Parker knows and loves from what I only imagine to be a highly literate engagement with the pop-heavy anthems of the prog rock greats.
That’s what this record is above all else, a 21st century update of progressive rock, a name we’ve always adopted for music we don’t quite get.
The mixtape shifts often happens in the same song as when we go from the guitar, pure rock intro of The Less I Know the Better to cheesy new wave hooks, synths and vocal lines or in Reality in Motion where Parker has managed to blur the lines between the early, benignly pleasant surf rock of the 1950’s in the verses and the pop anthem course which would have felt right at home as the twee chorus of an 80’s chick group.
Which begs a question. Daft Punk melded various forms of historical dance music into something entirely new on Random Access Memories, but who else could go from Past Life’s 80’s sci-fi movie love-theme to the over-produced pop-rock vocals straight out of Brian Wilson’s mouth in the two-minute banger Disciples, back to the 70’s, white people R&B on Cause I’m a Man but Parker, an apparent musical omnivore, who, for the last few years, has been masquerading as a rock ‘n roll musician?
The record succeeds on multiple levels, but it’s often the tiny production choices which make it stick, the inverted drop at the halfway point of Disciples, the unusual choice to add a synth line, or a guitar hook, just when you thought you knew what kind of song you were listening to.
I recently got up close and personal with Bill Pohlad’s paean to Brian Wilson Love and Mercy and, as will many of my generation after seeing the movie, finally grasped the importance of production and musical direction in crafting the Beach Boys sound, something which, to this day, most of us recognize as completely its own.
It’s a good reminder to those of us who obsessively consume music, but rarely consider its creation outside of the musicians we see playing it on stages, and Currents stands as what I consider one of the year’s most illustrative examples of production’s importance; one tiny change to a song, the dulling of the bass line, misplaced snaps or an under-produced vocal line could have derailed the risky concept behind the album.
But Parker knows not only his melodies, but his instruments, to a T, it seems, and Currents manages to masterfully stay on track, as perhaps the archetype of our generation’s omnivorous nature and the 21st century’s new philosophy of history; a past, present and future which exist simultaneously, here, in one gorgeous musical tapestry.
The past becoming the present.