On Lonerism, Tame Impala Arrived with the Vibes
10 years ago, Kevin Parker delved into the world of synthesizers and never looked backMusic Features Tame Impala
Tame Impala is one of the biggest rock bands in the world right now. But how does a rock band even get as big as Tame Impala these days? Some collaborations with A$AP Rocky and Lady Gaga certainly helped, and polymath Kevin Parker’s disco-leaning fourth record, The Slow Rush, earned him a spot in the pop pantheon in 2020. Still, it’s strange to think that the same man who wrote songs like “Runway, Houses, City, Clouds” and “Solitude Is Bliss” would headline Coachella in 2019 alongside Ariana Grande and Childish Gambino (who happens to be a big fan). Although 2015’s Currents was Parker’s first real foray into making pop music, Lonerism, now 10 years old, set the stage.
Currents may often get pegged as the album where Parker most prominently used synthesizers, but Lonerism marked the beginning stages of his infatuation with them. On Tame Impala’s debut, 2010’s Innerspeaker, he deliberately refrained from using synthesizers because he figured Tame Impala was a guitar band. In an interview at the time of Lonerism’s release, Parker recounted how he was reluctant to embrace synths while making the first record. “Back when I was doing Innerspeaker, I felt like I should make an album with only guitars and use no synths because I felt like it was a compromise to what we do,” Parker said. “But now I know that it’s not.”
From Lonerism’s opening few moments alone, it’s immediately apparent that this is a new Tame Impala. On “Be Above It,” a galloping drum beat and breathless refrain give way to some gurgling, LFO synths, clear as day in the mix. Those synths continue stacking on top of one another until they drown out Parker’s voice and nearly everything else, too. “Endors Toi” is built mostly on showy drum fills and rapidly arpeggiating synth chords. Although the closest we ever get to a bona fide hit on here is “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” the Lonerism era was also a time when Parker started getting really into pop music. For instance, he became enamored of artists like Britney Spears and claimed to have an album’s worth of material ready for fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue.
Regardless of his burgeoning fascination with writing pop songs, there was still a sizable dose of psychedelia in his music. Although he was and still is a massive Spears fan, he drew plenty of inspiration from Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, a True Star, consequently describing Lonerism as “Britney Spears singing the Flaming Lips.” He may have acquired a love of synths and pop, but this was still early-2010s Tame Impala, after all. As psych-rock cuts like “Mind Mischief” and “Keep on Lying” show, he still adored his flanging guitars—he just happened to adore his flanging synths in equal measure. iTunes users also got a bonus track fittingly called “Led Zeppelin,” which features Parker doing his best John Bonham impression.
Parker, despite his ever-growing resume and list of collaborators, is known for working alone. He typically writes, records and produces all of his albums by himself. Lonerism implies just as much on the pure basis of its title. Even as Tame Impala has ascended the festival-lineup ladder and transitioned from theaters to arenas, Parker still flies solo when it comes to his own records. But Lonerism actually has a couple of co-writes with touring drummer and GUM mastermind Jay Watson, and they happen to be some of the most popular tracks from the album. “Elephant,” a song huge enough to get a cover from The Wiggles, is something of an anomaly within the full context of Lonerism. Its stomping, blues-inspired riff belies the more psychedelic, synth-laden material elsewhere on the record. Out of all 12 tracks, this one would have fit in best on Innerspeaker. It’s unequivocally the heaviest of the bunch. The other song Parker wrote with Watson is “Apocalypse Dreams,” a Tame Impala staple that reliably appears toward the end of their live sets.
Parker also received some help with Lonerism’s mixing, getting help from the iconic Dave Fridmann, who’s best known for his work with artists like The Flaming Lips and MGMT. Although Fridmann didn’t actually produce any of the music himself, it likely didn’t hurt to have one of the most renowned people in psych-rock on (literal) board. Parker also wanted to expand his sound by collecting, well, actual sounds. Around this time, he became more obsessed with recording natural noises on his dictaphone, taking it with him as he took strolls on the beach and walked through city streets. “Keep on Lying,” for example, features snippets of conversations from a dinner party, which Parker altered with delay to make the listener feel like they’re at a dinner party they’re not even a part of. “I think I would have liked to make the people talking louder, but I wanted that to be the vibe,” Parker explained to MTV in 2012. “For me it makes the listener feel even more alienated.” Opener “Be Above It” also makes use of Parker’s recordings on his dictaphone, this time of a person walking down the street and the natural reverb their steps created. The closing track, “Sun’s Coming Up,” features recorded fragments of Parker walking to a beach in his hometown, Perth.
The use of ambient sound helps reinforce Lonerism’s larger themes of seclusion and isolation. There’s also the album art, a photo Parker took himself behind the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Parker enjoys making music alone, and Lonerism revels in the life of an outcast. The thing with outcasts, though, is that they usually aren’t too popular. Tame Impala, by contrast, is tremendously beloved. As Ian Cohen presciently wrote in his Pitchfork review, while none of the songs “initially stands out as the kind of hit that might push Tame Impala to bigger festival stages, the cumulative effect means Lonerism might.” In this sentence, Cohen chisels away at one of the core reasons why Tame Impala are as big as they are: vibes.
There’s no doubt that bros love to vibe to some Tame Impala. Part of the appeal of this band is how “vibey” Parker’s music sounds. Rather than scrutinize each myopic detail of his compositions, the macro of it all, the overall grandiosity of his music, is ultimately what matters. Lonerism washes over you with its buzzing sonics and full-velocity aural impact. Taking one song from the record out of the grander context of its siblings would be beside the point. The composite whole of Lonerism is how it’s become as classic and beloved as it has. When people were asking if Tame Impala was big enough to headline Coachella a few years ago, I was one of those skeptics, even as a big fan. Regardless, Tame Impala’s music is perfectly congruent with the vibey listening habits that streaming culture has wrought, landing without question on Spotify playlists titled “Indie Cooking” or “Hipster Chill” or some shit. On Innerspeaker, Tame Impala seemed like an unlikely candidate for the next big contemporary rock band mantle, but with Lonerism, they began changing that perception.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.
Listen to Tame Impala’s 2010 Daytrotter session below.