Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker celebrates its 10th anniversary today. In celebration, we let Culture Blender’s Max Chacon ramble at length about one of his favorite albums.
There’s something more than a little poetic about Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker turning 10 in the midst of the most isolating era of our lifetimes. The album was recorded in a giant, remote, wooden beach shack, four hours away from Kevin Parker’s home of Perth, the most isolated city on Earth. It’s an album that, lyrically, is about a dialogue for one – between Parker and his own self-doubts, longings and expectations. The title of Innerspeaker itself, which Parker discussed in this Rollo & Grady interview, is “meant to suggest that the songs come from somewhere internal, rather than slowly taking shape with a bunch of guys jamming in a room.”
Essentially, this is music from the mind of a geologically isolated, socially isolated, stoned introvert, made for fans of heady psychedelic music (also frequently referred to as stoned introverts). It’s an album for the album-lover, featuring an incredibly unified sound, thematic scope, and presenting the general vibe that you are listening to the ebb and flow of Parker’s personal thoughts drifting from one corner of his mind to the next.
While I certainly wasn’t on the cutting edge of listening to this album the day it dropped, the anniversary of this album means that Tame Impala have been a part of my life for nearly a decade now, and that feels pretty surreal. During the pre-streaming era that this album came out in, my music consumption habit was sponsored by a music-loving aunt of mine who would get really cheap album downloads from some Russian website (I’m sure it was super legitimate and legal) and email them to me. Sometimes I would request albums and other times she would send me new music that she thought I would enjoy – Innerspeaker was one of the latter. It came with a bundle of new releases she had sent me, and as usual all of this music was funneled straight into my holy grail, my most prized possession: my iPod touch.
One day shortly down the line, while shuffling through my songs I stumbled upon “Expectation” off the album, marking the first time I ever knowingly heard a song from the mind of Kevin Parker. To put things concisely: it fucked me up. As a thirteen year old with an already established love for the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Flaming Lips, and MGMT this was just about everything I loved about music tucked away into eleven tracks. I was hooked. Thank you Auntie Ashley.
The first time I ever played Tame for my dad, upon learning that I wasn’t playing him some obscure Beatles deep cut, he quipped that it “sounds just like the Beatles if they kept making music into the 70s.” To this day that really sticks with me when trying to boil down the essence of early Tame Impala. While Parker’s voice has an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon’s, the songs on Innerspeaker balance the undeniable pop melodicism of The Beatles, the distorted blues attack of Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd’s knack for instrumental passages that stretch grooves into outer space.
Similar to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Parker’s music wore his influences on his sleeve, yet managed to avoid the Zeppelin-by-numbers trappings of, say, Greta Van Fleet. Parker created a singular sound that would separate Tame from countless other nostalgia acts. This was largely due to Parker’s impulses as a producer, layering effects into walls of sound and crafting trancelike grooves that seemed to shift and swirl with each added element.
Album opener “It Is Not Meant to Be,” is driven by one of these prolonged grooves. While ultimately a simplistic chord progression, the guitars are soaked in more compressor, phaser, delay, and reverb filters than I can even pretend to know about. It’s a clear indication of the studio-as-an-instrument approach that Parker has used ever since to put the heady soundscapes that exist in his mind to tape. Lyrically, it deals with Parker speculating to himself about a potential relationship he knows would be doomed from the start.
Parker’s internal dialogues about self-doubt, longing, and isolation weren’t exactly new concepts in the world of popular music. For as long as socially awkward musical geniuses have flocked to guitars, there’s been music regarding these themes. However, rarely had it ever sounded so mind-melting. For instance, on the chugging psych-rock jam “Lucidity,” Parker ponders the idea the he “might just float away,” from all the emotional uncertainty he faces, only for the line to immediately be followed by concise yet exhilarating guitar solo that sounds like you’re watching a balloon drift off higher and higher into the sky. On the instrumental “Jeremy’s Storm,” guitar lines swirl, intertwine and distort until they reach a cacophonous point that resembles a thunderstorm.
From the get-go, Parker created music that you could close your eyes, immerse yourself in, and create some sort of cosmic light show in your mind’s eye. In 2020, the guitars may have been traded in for synths but Parker’s audiophile tendencies still allow for listeners to come away from each following Tame album with ultimately the same type of experience.
The hard rock crunch of “Desire Be Desire Go” and “The Bold Arrow of Time,” can be traced more directly to Parker playing in the Perth music scene, where members of Tame Impala and Pond gigged interchangeably in each other’s various songwriting projects. In previous interviews, Parker has admitted to splitting his writing during this early period between songs like these to play live, and the more genre-fluid compositions that have come to define the project. While these tracks undoubtedly rip (and make for pretty badass tequila swigging music), they are certainly holdovers from that more live-music oriented approach.
While a good faction of Tame Impala fans yearn for Parker to return to the guitar dominant productions of Innerspeaker these days, all the impulses that led him to the current state of Tame Impala can be seen here in embryonic form. This is especially true on the album’s high-point, “Alter Ego.” While on the surface it sounds like a far cry from the more dance-oriented direction Parker would take with albums like Currents and The Slow Rush, this track has more in common with his later compositions, such as “Let It Happen” than first meets the ear. The song functions almost identically to a dance track, adding layer after layer of guitars, synths, and breakbeat percussion until it reaches its most propulsive point – only to break and then build it back to that point again. In addition, while Parker’s vocals are buried lower in the mix throughout the album, it’s still beyond apparent that each of these songs are anchored by their pop hooks and melodies. After the warm reception to Innerspeaker, Parker simply has just felt less obligated to disguise them on ensuing albums.
The album’s other stand-out moment, “Runway Houses City Clouds,” is the first true Tame multi-part epic. It’s an ambitious track that’s so good, I’m still mildly disappointed they didn’t close out the album with it – as opposed to the album’s weakest link, the somewhat stagnant “I Don’t Really Mind.” As its title somewhat implies, this song manages to conjure the imagery of flight, jumping out the gate like a plane leaving the runway with frantic drumming, fuzzed-out guitar, and Parker crying out from beneath the noise like a flight attendant having an existential freak-out over the loudspeaker. After four minutes and twenty seconds (coincidence?!?) of on-and-off turbulence, things drop-out into a more subdued and hypnotic jam. The music drifts onwards like the sound of the world’s grooviest passenger plane calmly coasting out of the eye of a storm. Tame would go on to record more impressive epics, such as “Apocalypse Dreams,” or “Let It Happen,” but the end of this track still boasts the most tranquil passage of music Parker has ever recorded.
Tame Impala would go on to become a festival-headlining act and one of the most universally appealing groups (The Less I Know the better has half a billion streams) in modern music due to Parker’s psychedelic rock, R&B, dance, and pop appeal. But the charm of Innerspeaker is it’s rough-around-the-edges and old-school psychedelic sound, with the blueprint for each Tame album to come subtlety lying beneath the surface. These songs vary from good to great, are stacked with hooks and musical exploration, and feature the mind-melting musical textures that Parker has provided us with for a full decade now.
I first heard Tame Impala back on that iPod touch in middle school, and Parker’s music has been a constant in my life every step of the way. Thematically, his music might be about what goes on in the head of a shy psychedelic rock fanatic, but ironically enough it’s been a cornerstone of a lot of the friendships and relationships I’ve formed along the way.
Now I’ve graduated college only to conveniently be smacked in the face by the reality of trying to find a job amidst a pandemic, but if Innerspeaker is a reminder of anything, it’s that despite the general weirdness of the human experience and all the uncertainty that exists right now, there’s a whole lot of escapist bliss to be found in tossing on a pair of headphones and hitting play on one of your favorite records.
In the very heart of the album, in the midst of the perfect psych-pop jam that is “Solitude is Bliss,” Parker declares that “there’s a party in my head and no one is invited.” For 10 years now, Innerspeaker has given listeners the chance to crash that party over and over again, and I count myself among the many who are grateful for the opportunity.