Kevin Parker and the Brian Wilson Inheritance
'I heard about a whirlwind that's coming round/ it's gonna carry off all that isn't bound'
'I'm a leaf on a windy day/pretty soon I'll be blown away/ how long will the wind blow? Until I die.'
Tame Impala are often described as a 'revivalist' band, the implication being that if your vocal timbre sounds like John Lennon through a Leslie cabinet you’re ripping off the Beatles. To paraphrase Roger Waters: give a man a Les Paul guitar and he doesn’t become Eric Clapton – give a man a Hofner bass and he doesn’t become Paul McCartney. To me, what separates Tame Impala from their many, many imitators is that rather than rehashing a static, wax museum replica of a specific sound, Kevin Parker takes a wide range of sounds from various decades and genres and ties them together with his own unique songwriting, production, and lyrical personality.
I would argue that rather than being a pale copy of the Beatles circa 1966, Tame Impala is the latest inheritor of a different legacy started by Brian Wilson, another great 60’s songwriting visionary. What Kevin Parker shares with Brian Wilson, and few others, is a keen sense of how to make psychedelic music relatable. A profound psychedelic experience isn't about the walls melting or seeing dancing pink elephants or any of the usual tropes hack TV writers (or hack songwriters) use to portray a character 'tripping out', it's about experiencing a fully-realised, inescapable sense of one’s place in the universe. Many musicians have tried to translate this experience, with some pretty average results (I won’t name names, but there’s some dross out there). Where Tame Impala stand out in comparison with their psychedelically-inclined peers is that Kevin Parker’s lyrics are very direct and the emotions behind his vocal delivery are clear. His songs are free to wander off in any direction he wants because the listener has a lifeline to hold on to. Listening to music touted as ‘psychedelic’ can often feel like listening to a description of someone else’s dream - utterly tedious, regardless of what is going on in the other person’s mind. Kevin Parker has an uncanny way of putting you inside his head, wherever his music takes you. Brian Wilson, when he was writing his own lyrics, had a similar emotional directness that anchored his music. The best example of this is Till I Die, one of the most emotionally bleak, beautifully recorded songs ever committed to tape.
I would argue that, regardless of how they got there, Kevin Parker and Brian Wilson are writing about the same emotional experience: loneliness. To be fair, Brian Wilson’s loneliness probably stemmed from a mixing of genuine psychosis and a ruthless music industry that was determined to take advantage of him (and all the amphetamines probably didn’t help either), while Kevin Parker seems like a fairly well-adjusted guy. But the defining mental image I get when I hear their music is of one man alone in the middle of a cathedral of sound. The back cover of Lonerism is illustrative of this: Kevin Parker lying on his floor surrounded by his instruments and recording gear - presumably, the instruments and gear he used to write and record the album pretty much singlehandedly. Similarly, Brian Wilson was singlehandedly responsible for the music, arrangements and production on Pet Sounds (although to be fair, not the lyrics).
The similarity between the songwriting visions of Kevin Parker and Brian Wilson has never been clearer than on Eventually, a song from Tame Impala’s new album Currents. Swap out the fuzz guitars and booming drums for strings and timpani (although keep the warbly organ/synth), and this song could fit right in on Pet Sounds or any of the post-Smile Beach Boys albums from the 70’s. The lyrics are cutting and brutally honest, something of a rarity in any genre, let alone psychedelic rock.
‘I know that I’ll be happier, and I know you will be too… eventually’
Imagine a Tame Impala cover of Surf’s Up, an absolute masterpiece of a song with great lyrics by Van Dyke Parks. It’s the kind of song that could sound great for piano and vocals alone or with a full psychedelic arrangement. Or maybe Brian Wilson could travel back in time and do a cover of Feels Like We Only Go Backwards with the original Beach Boys lineup…
Come to think of it, this would be a kickass Tame Impala song:
Whether or not my amateur psychoanalysis of Kevin Parker and Brian Wilson is off-base (it probably is), the fact remains that they share a remarkable ability to make the ineffable, well, effable. That they can do so in the format of a three-minute pop song is nothing short of remarkable. If the four songs released so far off Currents are an indication of its overall quality, Tame Impala won’t have put a foot wrong since their debut, and I seriously can’t wait until July 17.