Home Music Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (10th Anniversary 4LP Box Set)

Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (10th Anniversary 4LP Box Set)

Most music about sad men is haunted by the ghost of lost love. Kevin Parker doesn’t even have any lost loves to be haunted by. His problem is his inaction. He knows he’s not beneath the affections of the girl sitting next to him, but the extra step of dragging his words through the fog of his brain is too much trouble. And then what if his words come out wrong?

Tame Impala’s 2010 debut is one of the finest albums ever made about social anxiety, amplified by the protagonist’s stultifying addiction to cannabis. He wants to fall in love and make friends as easily as the people around him, not so much because love and friendship are things he desires but because he wants to know that he’s capable of attaining them. He’d rather be alone, where he can be the king of his own mountain and not have to worry about the disappointing interactions we have to go through in order to function normally.

We implicitly understand that the music on Innerspeaker is a representation of the place Parker goes when he’s alone, of how good it can be when he takes a massive bong rip and stops caring about other people’s expectations. He craves this feeling. It’s only when he comes down that he realizes it’s not what he needs. That Innerspeaker sounds unbelievable under the influence does not detract from its message. This is music you listen to when you feel the same way as Kevin Parker: aware of your problems, willing to put them aside for 53 minutes.

All Parker the character wants to do is play music, and we can hear how happy Parker the person is in the studio. Listen to how the reverb follows his voice on five-and-a-half-minute opener “It Is Not Meant To Be.” “I wanted her,” he shouts from the other end of a canyon. Then, when he starts to explain why she didn’t want him, he turns down the effects and sings like a normal guy instead of a storm god. Most artists use reverb to obscure the cracks in their voice, but how many producers actually engage the reverb in dialogue with the singer?

No other album by Tame Impala or anyone else sounds quite like this. The drums are jazzy and tactile, defined by ride cymbals rather than snares and crashes, often augmented by a lonely egg shaker at the front of the mix (the “2020 Mix” of “Alter Ego” removes this, and the drums sound even more tempestuous). The bass notes drip like dew from the neck of the instrument. The guitars scream across the sky like fighter jets leaving vapor trails. There’s a sense of tremendous open space, of weightlessness, of hurtling through the air at an ungodly speed.

Innerspeaker is the rare blues-based rock album that doesn’t feel like a reactionary statement so much as the next evolution of the form had it not gotten stuck in self-mythology. Parker shows no signs of being embarrassed by classic rock, but he’s smart enough to avoid its excesses—the conceit of being more “authentic” than other music, the misogyny and sexual greed, the tendency to think it’s deeper or smarter than it is. At the same time, he isn’t trying to write songs you might’ve half-remembered on the radio as a kid. In fact, one of the most stunning things about this album is how completely devoid it is of overt references to the past.

Though Parker’s voice and melodic sensibilities recall John Lennon’s, these aren’t tight Beatles-style songs but longer and woollier things with more of an early-‘70s feel in sound and structure, prone to tempo changes and long digressions without ever losing a sense of forward momentum. At 11 songs in 53 minutes, Innerspeaker has the proportions of a CD-era rock album rather than an LP-era rock album, and it’s technically a double album on vinyl. But it unfurls rather than plodding, each song plays an equal role in shouldering the load, and its pacing stays on the right side of the line between patient and slow.

Parker listened to DJ Shadow’s great instrumental hip hop album Endtroducing….. while making this album, and the way drums skitter wildly through the stereo field rather than just keeping the beat prefigures some of his later dalliances with hip hop and electronic music. The two extra LPs of demos and jams that come with Innerspeaker’s slightly belated 10th-anniversary edition are sequenced as if to imagine what the record would sound like as a beat tape, full of instrumentals and jams and interludes and loops.

But the arrangements are rooted in rock orthodoxy at all times: guitar, bass, drums, a synth when needed (as when the midsection of “I Don’t Really Mind” blows wide open), and, on “Desire Be Desire Go,” an organ Deep Purple would’ve been happy to blow heads with. Parker played almost every note of Innerspeaker, but he pretends he’s fronting a band, and the album gains a lot from this illusion. The sound is unbending: no genre experiments, no inclination to fill the margins with bells and whistles, no stake to the claim of studio god aside from just how good the album sounds.

In other words, it shares none of its DNA with Brian Wilson. Wilson is the patriarch of a rich tradition of psychedelic pop artists—McCartney, Barrett, Rundgren, Sill, Coyne, Mangum, Elverum—who are naked and alone with their epiphanies, who are experiencing the death of childhood and the profound disappointment of the world through a starry-eyed haze. Innerspeaker is an album about aloneness, but Parker is not naked. His drugs and his solitude insulate him. And profound disappointment can wait until he’s played guitar for another hour.

Parker’s later albums represent successive stages in his emotional maturity—and, by no coincidence, leaned much more on keyboards and studio trickery. 2012’s Lonerism made the quandaries coiling beneath Innerspeaker so explicit that one of its tracks is called “Why Won’t They Talk to Me.” 2015’s Currents found him opening up a little more, his neuroses emerging from love rather than the lack thereof, and by 2020’s The Slow Rush, he was married, thinking about kids, and as happy as a serial kvetcher was ever likely to get.

Your mileage on those later albums will vary. Parker lost some fans with Currents but gained many, many more, and while few rock bands would dare attempt the same dalliance with sounds associated with contemporary pop, a lot of fans still hold on dearly to Innerspeaker’s purity of vision. Then there’s the simple fact that a happier Parker is a less relatable Parker. But who are we to deny him his happiness? Innerspeaker is less depressing, anyway, when we know that the poor stoner will eventually break on through to the other side and find success and lasting love. The mind is a great place to visit once in a while, not so great a place to get stuck.

Summary
Tame Impala’s 2010 debut is one of the finest albums ever made about social anxiety.
92 %
Solitude is Bliss
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