Combine three musicians from the hinterlands of Perth with a mixing job from Flaming Lips cohort Dave Fridmann and you get Innerspeaker, a guitar-drenched, modern psychedelic album that is masterfully crafted and magnificently performed. It is also agonizingly dull, locking to an monotonously repetitive pattern and exhibiting vocals that too often feel incidental at best and irrelevant at worst. The debut full-length from Australian band Tame Impala, Innerspeaker is unarguably an audiophile’s type of record and one whose techniques and apparent influences invite study and discovery. But as clichéd as this might sound, there’s no heart here; the album emphasizes technical brilliance but coats that brilliance in a clinical and cold exterior that absolutely deadens whatever impact the songs might have had.
In their best moments Tame Impala find ways to incorporate a lot of the sounds your parents got high to without it feeling like thievery, melding these echoes of the 1960s past with hints of numerous genres that followed the demise of psychedelia part one. Listeners who fancy themselves music historians will likely have a field day rooting around in these songs for possible links to older bands; “It’s Not Meant To Be,” “Lucidity” and the instrumental “Jeremy’s Storm” are logical starting points, as each song can realistically be said to contain traces of everything from vintage late 1960s psychedelic rock to shoegaze and 1980s indie. With its exceptionally balanced mix – Fridmann puts every layer of instrumentation at about the same level – Innerspeaker sounds epic on a good set of speakers, especially in the sonic explorations of “Desire Be Desire Go,” “Expectation” and “The Bold Arrow of Time.”
Few albums can skate by solely on sound though, and Innerspeaker isn’t one of them. Its songs are excessively precise; lacking even the faintest suggestion of spontaneity, the album eventually sounds like one long, plodding single track, with only minor variations that offer no real sense of risk-taking or even simple variety. The album’s latter half, from “Expectation” through closing track “I Don’t Really Mind” in particular, bleeds together into an indistinguishable mass of guitar layers and supporting instrumentation. Kevin Parker’s vocals do these songs no favors either, as they sometimes actually serve as a distraction and not an enhancement to these songs. While it’s forgivable that his voice shares an uncanny similarity to John Lennon, Parker delivers most of his lines in the same deliberate, dreamy, half-intelligible cadence, an approach that quickly wears thin and makes the lyrics largely unimportant as the album’s pace drags along.
Innerspeaker’s songs are compositionally meticulous but also emotionless, and if an album can be described as professorial, it’s this one. Whether by intention or through its own inherent shortcomings, Innerspeaker places musical form above lyrical content. This is nothing new in indie -practitioners like My Bloody Valentine and Sigur Rós have shown that it can be done properly – but it requires something unique in order to connect with an audience and to avoid being inaccessible just for the hell of it. Tame Impala fails to strike such a balance throughout this release, making Innerspeaker an album that tickles the ears but never really engages the mind.