Music is just as much an art as it is a commodity. It is a product of both the artist and the intended listeners. As songwriters perfect the art of a catchy pop hit, they often inadvertently forget how to write a good song. However, every now and then a band that ignores the money flow comes along and writes music purely as art. Tame Impala takes this approach with Lonerism, crafting a gorgeous album that will undoubtably improve with age. With every listen the album changes flavor, a different chord pops out, and you realize the brilliance of a melody. Lonerism is sonic imagery at its finest, harkening back to a day when musical artistry was valued above all else.
In the psychedelic era, music was crafted to provide (in conjunction with drugs) the pinnacle of human experience. The songs were longer, less rigidly defined, and featured an ethereal sound. As we all know, this era provided some of the greatest rock music ever. Tame Impala brings this psychedelic sound into a modern context, adding synths and other electronics to the traditional psychedelic music. Tame Impala sounds like a hodgepodge of famous psychedelic bands, including The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Most noticeably, front man Kevin Parker sounds like John Lennon reincarnated.
While the sonic layers of Lonerism provide the beauty, the song structures produce the intrigue. Tame Impala throws traditional songwriting out the window, keeping the listener surprised and entertained with an assortment of melodies and guitar licks that follow no discernible pattern. The structure is like a rollercoaster, suddenly changing direction just as the listener feels comfortable. For example, the song “Apocalypse Dreams” continuously wavers between falsetto melodies over staccato piano and drawn-out singing over melodic guitar. About two-thirds of the way in, the melodic section washes over everything else, allowing beautiful synths to guide the listener to the conclusion.
Thematically, this album centers on the feeling of disconnect from the rest of society. Kevin Parker constantly sings about his lack of efficacy in his life. In “Apocalypse Dreams,” Parker opens optimistically with, “This could be the day that we push through/it could be the day our dreams push through.” However, the optimism quickly deteriorates. By the end, Parker is singing “Nothing ever changes,” and conveying an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. In “Keep on Lying,” Parker sings, “All I give are little clues/maybe one day I’ll get through/there is nothing I can do/I just keep on lying to you.” One gets the sense that Parker is unable to convey his true feelings to his lover because he is unsure of whether she would accept them. At the end of the vocal section, he utters, “Please understand/it never really was love,” presumably telling another lie as he is incapable of doing otherwise. As a result, the listener is left to ponder if this disconnection with society is self-imposed.
Ultimately, the overall creativity and lack of song structure make Lonerism a great listen for a prolonged period of time. However, these features also provide the lone downfall of the album. In order to give its songs melodic power, Tame Impala had to compensate for the lack of a said structure. Because of this, Tame Impala often beats certain hooks to death. The best example is the opening song, “Be Above It,” which attempts to subsist off of a single melody and almost no instrumentation. While it survives in the context of the album, it lacks much firepower on its own.
Although Lonerism may shift into redundancy now and then, overall it is a tremendous accomplishment. The psychedelic style makes it distinct from almost all of today’s music, and the melodies do not disappoint. A warning for the casual listener: it does take a few listens to get into it. Because of the varied melodic and rhythmic structures, the songs need time to let their sheer beauty wash over the listener. Having journeyed through the album ten plus times already, I can assure you that it has a unique ability to retain its freshness with repeated listenings. If you’re open to unique music or have a lot of time to indulge in an album, I encourage you to strap on your best pair of headphones, plug in, and take a psychedelic trip back to the late 1960s.