For a music critic, four months after an album release isn’t a third of a year, it’s an epoch. The rule has always been to review the album as soon as it’s released, or at least in the first week or two after release if you cannot acquire a prerelease copy. Anything after that is a nostalgic trip down memory lane. But here we are. Tame Impala’s Lonerism was released on October 9th, 2012. This review is going up in February. But the album is too good to ignore.
Tame Impala arrived on the scene fully-formed with their debut Innerspeaker. It was a psych-rock album not afraid to show its influences, with Cream-like riffs punching through hazy jam sessions that’d make Jimi Hendrix and Iron Butterfly proud. It was a fun album that was surprisingly well-produced for such a new group. But it didn’t seem to have much staying power. It was an album you put on, blisssed out to, and then put away. The songs, while well done, felt a bit awkward and directionless, and there was no thread that tied the album together.
Then came Lonerism, and it felt like a revelation. At first listen, the album doesn’t sound that different from their debut. The differences are subtle, but they make a huge impact. The riffs are tighter. The songs have direction. The melodies are catchier. The mix is richer. As a complete product, Lonerism is 10x more immersive than Innerspeaker ever was.
Opener “Be Above It” sets the bar high with its driving beat, reverbed synths, and a simple, tuneful melody sung by frontman Kevin Parker. Fuzzy guitars and occasional distortion lead to micro-builds in the song that push it forward. It feels like it’s over before it begins, leaving the listener wanting to hear it again and again. That is, if the rest of the album wasn’t so rewarding.
The nimble bass that drives “Apocalypse Dreams” keeps the song in check as it goes through various tempo changes, each new section building on the last. Retro guitars complement a gorgeous melody in “Mind Mischief,” which has one of the most ethereal second halves I’ve heard in a while. It’s just one of the many moments in Lonerism when it feels like you’re floating on a boundless sea, soaking in the world around you. The grungy “Elephant,” with its strutting distorted guitar, perfectly matches the song’s subject of a man who exudes bravado to cover up his insecurities.
Overall the album is much more dynamic than Innerspeaker. Lonerism has the group focusing on tight grooves instead of jumping from section to section aimlessly. The band isn’t afraid to ride a good groove for a few repetitions, unlike others who fear their melodies growing stale. The shining example of this repetition is in Lonerism’s centerpiece “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.”
Probably their most pleasing song, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is a splash of psychedelic pop that’s rewarding every time it comes on. The bright bass is pushed to the front of the mix, competing with Parker’s ethereal voice sounding like the last echoes of a John Lennon LSD trip. With harmonies that’d make the Beach Boys blush, the chorus hits early and hits often. The second half of the song is just the chorus on repeat, with varied instrumentation each time. While most of the time this amount of repetition would outstay its welcome, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” has a chorus so vibrant that it’s not repeated enough. If I had to decide on my favorite melody in 2012, this would be it.
So what’s Lonerism about? As gleaned from the title, the album is about isolation. The album cover is a picture taken by Parker looking in on the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, France behind an iron gate. The gate, blocking him from the myriad of people hamming it up in the garden, summarizes the feeling of disconnect that occurs when cut off from others.
Song titles such as “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” are self-explanatory, but the lyrics say it best. Many of these songs give way to instrumental jams, but when Parker opens his mouth, the extent of desperation the protagonist is going through is truly felt. On “Keep on Lying” Parker muses, “There is something you should know/But hell if I’d ever let it show.” On “Sun’s Coming Up,” the protagonist has officially checked out from the world. In one of the most heartbreaking couplets, Parker cries, “Playing his guitar while dying of cancer/Oh my father, why won’t you answer?” The beginning of the album has the protagonist telling himself to get over his anxieties and fears, but by the end of the album, he’s given in, believing that the world has nothing left for him.
In an interview, Parker mentioned that Lonerism was an album that was “weird and fucked up, but on the other hand very pop.” And he combined both of these sentiments beautifully. With bright songs filled with imaginative instrumentation and fantastic melodies, it’s hard not to fall in love with the sound the band’s got, whereas digging into the song’s lyrical content reveals a narrative that’s hard to ignore.
Most importantly, Lonerism is an incredibly immersive album. The sonics swirl in your head, turning everything technicolor. It’s a world you can sink into for 45 minutes, letting your eyes glaze over as everything else melts away. It’s something that sticks with you for hours, absolutely deserving of its many accolades from big-shot music critics. It’s hard to imagine the group following up this album with anything as rewarding. They’ve set the bar very high.