When the lineup for Coachella was announced in January, two of the headliners — Ariana Grande and Childish Gambino — stood out as instantly recognizable pop music behemoths. And then there was the third headliner, Tame Impala, a very popular and acclaimed indie rock band that hasn’t yet crossed over as a household name. Will that change in 2019? Along with the Coachella booking, Tame Impala’s fourth album is expected to be released some time this year. While no music from LP4 has been teased yet, all signs point toward Tame Impala continuing its evolution from psych-rock outsiders to electro-pop would-be world-conquerers, an arc that’s emblematic of indie’s overall shift in the 2010s from proud, willful obscurity toward an enthusiastic embrace of the mainstream.
Tame Impala’s output this decade — 2010’s InnerSpeaker, 2012’s Lonerism, and 2015’s Currents — is as good as any indie act. Each album can stand on its own, though when you listen to them consecutively it’s easy to pick up on an obvious progression, from the record collector rock of InnerSpeaker, to the ecstatic fusion of psychedelia and electronic-music methodology on Lonerism, to the pared-back R&B-flavored pop of Currents.
This sequence also acts as a microcosm of larger trends that Tame Impala somehow intuited rather than merely followed, reflecting an overall shift from the guitar-based classicism that remained a touchstone for indie bands in the ’00s, to a sound that is more vibe-y, more concentrated on the bottom end, and more palatable for festival audiences and streaming-platform subscribers content to zone out rather than rock out. Studying Tame Impala’s development in the ’10s won’t tell you everything about how indie changed this decade, but it’s a good place to start.
Here’s where I should stop referring to Tame Impala as a collective identity. From the outset of Tame Impala’s recording career in 2008, singer-songwriter Kevin Parker has been understood to be the band, performing all of the parts himself in the studio and then using other musicians to essentially play act as a group on stage. This also makes Tame Impala a handy reference point for what’s become the norm in contemporary indie — as is the case with the War On Drugs, Car Seat Headrest, Snail Mail, Jay Som, and many others, Tame Impala represents the end of the conventional, four or five-piece democratic unit as the standard archetype in slightly left-of-center rock. Bands are now fronts for individuals, who are easier for record labels and PR firms to promote and sell in the marketplace than an unpredictable, potentially combustible, multi-headed unit.
Of all the indie auteurs who have outed themselves as benevolent musical dictators, nobody has embraced the mantle of “loner genius” more than Parker. A mainstay of his interviews and magazine profiles is Parker describing his own “agonizing” and even “psychotic” levels of perfectionism in the studio. When he was making albums like InnerSpeaker and Lonerism, this naturally brought to mind icons like Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett, who pioneered the “loner genius” archetype in rock back in the ’60s. Journalists were also quick to compare Parker’s slight and fey vocals to “Strawberry Fields Forever”-era John Lennon, further fortifying Parker’s budding reputation as a throwback.
But that image was always reductive. One of the standout tracks from Lonerism, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” has a chorus that sounds lifted from a Magical Mystery Tour outtake. But the drum loop is more reminiscent of the RZA than Ringo Starr, and the droning swirl of noise floating between the gritty rhythm track and Parker’s sleepy vocal sounds utterly unlike a rock band blasting away on stage. It’s more like a sonic collage made by an electronic artist.
Unlike a true traditionalist like Jack White, Parker has always had a thoroughly modern sensibility when it comes to how technology can replicate the feel of rock music without actually being rock music in the old-fashioned sense. “There’s a lot of talk about, ‘Is it a guitar or is it a synth?’ I don’t even see the difference, because for me it’s the same thing. It’s just one has a slightly different texture,” Parker told me in 2015.