“It’s been a while since we played into the sunset,” Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker blithely declared at the midpoint of Tuesday’s concert in Minneapolis. The band was in town for two sold-out shows at a venue behind a local brewery, playing for a total of about 12,000 people. It was warm-up of sorts for Tame Impala’s big headlining spot several hours down the road at Lollapalooza on Friday.
The sunset remark was a subtle flex about Tame Impala’s current status as one of the only young rock bands that can headline a major music festival well past dusk. Back in April, Parker’s group was one of the top acts at Coachella, which happened right after the band debuted two new songs, “Patience” and “Borderline,” on Saturday Night Live.
Five months ago, I wondered whether 2019 will be the year that Tame Impala becomes one of the world’s biggest bands. Milling around Tuesday’s concert made that question seem moot. Selling out two large outdoor shows in the middle of America is feat only a small handful of bands in Tame Impala’s 2010s-era peer group could pull off. (Perhaps The 1975 could do it, too, but it’s hard to think of other examples.) Aside from the occasional graybeard in a Greta Van Fleet t-shirt, the audience was also uncommonly young, no doubt due to Tame Impala’s unique ability to bridge the worlds of throwback psych-rock and modern pop, via collaborations with artists like Travis Scott and Lady Gaga.
Tame Impala no doubt is thriving right now. But the band is also in a state of flux. When I wrote about them in March, I was under the impression that a new album cycle (or even a surprise release) was imminent. The new songs, the high-profile SNL appearance, Coachella — it all seemed to be setting up Tame Impala’s fourth record, their first since 2015. And yet … there appears to be no new LP in sight.
In May, the New York Times published a profile of Parker that focused on his perfectionism and control-freak tendencies, traits that made him the sole creative force in a band that’s essentially a front for a solo artist surrounded by hired guns. As I noted back in March, this narrative has been central to stories about Tame Impala from the beginning of Parker’s career. He has long presented himself as a “loner genius” figure in the mold of Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett (or, to use a more contemporary example, Frank Ocean).
But the Times story seemed suspiciously like a form of damage control intended to excuse the album’s delays. The article’s author, Jon Pareles, wrote that Parker had played him “10 tracks in various stages of completion, most awaiting vocal tracks and lyrics.” He likened the songs to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, which would put the new album in the same ballpark as Currents.
“It’s taken shape in my head,” Parker said of the new, as-yet-untitled LP. “When I start making songs for an album, I don’t know what each one’s role is. But by the time I’m finished, each one has a color, each one has an identity, each one has a purpose.”
The main takeaway from the Times profile is that Parker is continuing to tinker with the record as the band tours the world through the end of summer, including two headlining shows at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden later this month. In an interview published in July by the website Huck, Parker suggested that the creative space that his success has afforded him has in some ways been a hindrance when it comes to actually finishing off the album.
“The more power and control I have over the music, the more freedom and respect I’m given by my record label, then the more I don’t have them going like, ‘Right, you’ve got to f*cking finish this.’ So that is an issue,” said Parker, who has also looked to Kanye West’s post-release revisions to The Life of Pablo as a kind of devil on his shoulder. (“It’s dangerous. When I first heard that he’d done that, I just went, ‘Oh, no! That’s gonna be me.’”)
So far, the only new Tame Impala music the public has heard is “Patience” and “Borderline” — which presumably, will be on the new album. Though in the absence of an official tracklist (or Parker actually making up his mind), it can’t be said for certain. Both songs fit with the mid-tempo, R&B-inflected dance-pop that Pareles describes, with Parker leaning into his soft, Michael Jackson-esque purr.
I’ve since warmed to both tracks, which are amiably low-key if solid slices of psych-soul that evoke the ’70s prog-pop band Supertramp, one of Parker’s biggest influences. But compared with barnburners like “Elephant” and “Let It Happen,” which offered thrilling sneak previews to 2012’s Lonerism and Currents, respectively, neither song seems like an all-timer. While it would be unfair to describe them as flops — they have been streamed more than 26 million times each on Spotify, numbers most indie acts would kill for — the tracks didn’t exactly gin up tons of excitement for what else Tame Impala has in its coffers. One wonders if the less-than-enthusiastic reception those songs received has also informed Parker’s desire to keep on tinkering.
Meanwhile, whenever Parker isn’t on the tour bus and (I assume) working on new music on his laptop, he’s out performing big rock shows for tens of thousands of fans. On Tuesday, I saw Tame Impala for the third time — though it was my first seeing them in a festival-like environment. I was surprised and impressed by how well they’ve adjusted to this setting. When I saw them play theaters, they weren’t shooting confetti into the audience as songs like “Feel Like We Only Go Backwards” reached their sonic and emotional crescendos. But the theatrics helped to lift Tuesday’s show to some deliriously happy highs.
The knock on Parker as a frontman is that he acts like a guy who would rather be on the tour bus working on his long-delayed album. This criticism has some merit — during the long, ecstatic instrumental break of “Let It Happen,” Parker wandered the stage while holding a Red Solo cup, looking exactly like so many of the sweetly buzzed, long-haired dudes staggering around in the audience. (To a paraphrase a joke made by a music critic in the ’70s about the Eagles, Parker doesn’t perform on stage, he loiters.)
You know who else doesn’t display much in the way of showmanship? The guys in Pink Floyd and pretty much every festival-headlining DJ. What they have instead are songs you can vibe out with, and really cool lights. And that’s what Tame Impala — the midpoint of Dark Side Of The Moon and Avicii — has on stage as well. It’s precisely the sort of show you want to be at on a perfect summer night. It’s as smooth as a contact high from a sea of vape pens. Even Parker seemed to be enjoying himself. Though, I’m sure, his mind was probably still back on that tour bus.