This article began as something simple: write a nice review of Tame Impala’s critically acclaimed sophomore album, Lonerism. I had heard their monstrous single “Elephant,” had heard the hype around the release, and even read some of the initial reviews, almost all of which were nothing short of dazzling. I was eager to get cracking on a track-by-track breakdown of this new opus from the Australian psychedelic masterminds.
But then something struck me. The further I dug in my pre-listening research for the album, the more I noticed each reviewer’s emphasis on its thematic content, which can more or less be summed up as “Lonerism” itself, or, more concretely, the art of being alone. Somewhere along the way, a little inkling of thought took hold and gradually grew into a serious artistic question: what is it like to experience complete Lonerism?
I ran with the idea. I wondered to myself, how often do I take new music and devote myself completely and entirely to experiencing it and it alone? The surprising conclusion was, almost never. Too often, experiencing new music comes with other tasks, such as driving or checking Facebook, or hanging out with friends. Now, I realize that the interaction between art and the world around us is a very important one. After all, many forms of art are created simply as attempts to make heads or tails of the worlds we live in. But what then, I asked myself, of ars gratia artis, of art for art’s sake? When art, specifically music in this case, stands completely alone, what does it do to us? How do we interact with it? These were questions I wanted to explore in my experiencing of Tame Impala’s Lonerism. The lyrical and thematic substance of this album seemed to me the perfect easel on which to paint this picture of experiencing music completely isolated from everything else.
But first, some background information. It is helpful to know that Tame Impala’s albums are written, recorded, and produced almost entirely by lead singer Kevin Parker. In this regard, the music and the themes are his and no one else’s. Now, their live shows are a different animal altogether, but we’re not getting into that here. I think this helped my experience of Lonerism, because it became a true one-on-one interaction with the creator of the art and with his creation. Now, like I said, I had heard a track or two off this album, and I had read reviews, so I didn’t go into this experience completely blind. But I did my best to make sure that I was sealed off from the world while I listened to it, so I grabbed my headphones, locked myself in my closet, turned off the lights, laid down in the darkness, and pressed play, ready for my mind to be taken wherever Kevin Parker’s music might lead it.
I must admit, at first, I was scared. It is a truly startling experience to be completely and utterly alone, but this was what the album and the endeavor called for. The album opens in a most terrifying way, as a voice whispers to you, “I gotta be above it, I gotta be above it … ” while a cacophonous chorus of tribal drumbeats crashes in your head. I immediately felt completely yanked out of whatever world I was living in. For a bit, Parker suspends you in this darkness, this limbo where you can’t collect your thoughts and you can’t tell what’s going on, like being caught up in a tidal wave. But with a shimmering vibrato of chords and a penetrating croon of Parker’s voice, suddenly the world of the music and your mind opens up completely. Parker, sounding every bit like the ghost of John Lennon, urges you into this loner’s world as he sings, “And I know that I gotta be above it now/ And I know that I can’t let them bring me down.” Meanwhile the instruments are building into a crescendo as these scattered thoughts fill your mind: Where am I? What is happening? Is this real life? With the closing lines of the song, Parker declares, “I’ll just close my eyes and make it so that all these little things don’t affect me now.” And, as the warm, shimmering chords and the smashing drumbeat slowly fade out, you’re left only with that voice, still whispering to you, “I gotta be above it.” Only this time it is not a stranger’s whisper. Instead it is like some Jiminy Cricket encouraging you to leave this world behind and see what your mind has to offer in this experience of being utterly alone with the music.
The album follows almost perfectly with the progression of the mind through the exploration of utter aloneness. Thoughts are disjointed, lyrics are concerned, the music is all over the place. But how else would you respond in your first moments of complete aloneness? The second and third tracks, “Enders Toi” and “Apocalypse Dreams” respectively, are sprawling sonic explorations, in one moment cascading with fuzzed-out guitars then immediately taking an about face as you’re left with only Parker’s voice and the remnants of organ feedback. Here among the symphony of the mind you hear a voice singing out, “Everything is changing/ And there’s nothing I can do.” During this moment of blissful confusion, Parker wonders to himself, “Am I getting closer?/ Will I ever get there?” Surely the mind can’t wander alone in total bedlam forever.
As “Apocalypse Dreams” fades into “Mind Mischief,” the listener is aware that things have suddenly, surprisingly, come together. The music is tight and the thoughts are collected. And perhaps it should come as no surprise that Parker’s first thoughts as he is alone with his mind are of himself back in the world outside. There are observations, regrets, and even wishful what-ifs abounding in these thoughts of the past, of the self back in the real world. In “Mind Mischief,” a slow-rolling rocker with excellent drum and guitar work that is much more put together than the previous songs — as if to echo the shift in mood — Parker sings, “Feels like my life is ready to blow/ Me and my love we’ll take it slow/ I hope she knows that I’ll love her long/ I just don’t know where the hell I belong.”
As the mind collects its thoughts in the totally isolated experience of art, it does indeed tend to focus on what it left behind back in the real world. I certainly felt myself addressing whatever issues, or baggage, or even random thoughts I had carried with me into this experience. This is not a bad thing, for as Lonerism reflects, this is how the mind operates when it’s completely alone. It gets its bearings and then latches on to what it knows. So goes the album as it continues on in “Music To Walk Home By,” an upbeat psych-rock jam that belies the lyrical emptiness lying beneath. Parker begins, “But that’s only when I think of you/ Some vision that I hold on to/ You know it’s everything I do.” Still stuck on whatever shortcomings he had back in the world, here the loneliness, the true Lonerism, begins to creep in: “I’m playing a part/ As somebody else/ While trying so hard/ To be myself.”
Things then take a somber turn, as the mind becomes acutely aware of its aloneness, despite being fully immersed in the musical experience. In “Why Won’t They Talk To Me,” Parker laments, “Out of the zone/ Trying to see/ I’m so alone/ Nothing for me.” Even the music takes a bit of a downward dip, as the mind ride glides through bitter self-awareness, and at times it seems the mind wants to come back to the distractions of the real world. In “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” Parker mirrors this sentiment, singing, “It feels like we only go backwards, baby/ Every part of me says ‘go ahead’/ But I got my hopes up again, oh no, not again/ Feels like we only go backwards, darling.”
While in the middle of this isolated experience of art, I was amazed by the ease with which my mind followed this exact trajectory. At first I was lost in this shimmering sea of the mind’s symphony. Then I gathered my thoughts and looked back to the first thing I remembered. Then I realized that those things weren’t with me, that it was only the music and me, and then I felt almost trapped in this strange limbo of time and space, a sort of tug-o-war between my mind experiencing this aloneness of art and my mind wanting to pull back into the real world. But I kept forcing myself back into the music, away from the world, and the efforts paid off.
The next track, “Keep On Lying,” is the mind’s attempt to regain control of itself: “So here I am, trying to be strong/ It was noon, now my shadow’s long.” This track is interesting because it starts with a fade-in, as if you’re jumping right back into this Lonerism, and with a newfound willingness, no less. Then comes the declaration of mental independence! “Elephant,” the lead single on this album, is in many ways a misfit track. Its bass-heavy, chugging beat will be sure to bring out the head-banging and the fist-pumping in all of us. It’s musically very dissimilar from much of the album as by far the hardest-rocking track. And lyrically it stands out as a moment in which the mind detaches itself from the world and declares itself on top: “There must be something deep in the dark down there/ But he’s not too easily scared.” At this point, I found my mind more than willing to be caught up in its one aloneness. I was myself, independent of all things that weren’t in my head! Parker sings it best: “He pulled the mirrors off his Cadillac/ ‘Cause he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back./ He talks like his opinion is a simple fact.”
Following “Elephant” is a 57-second track called “She Just Won’t Believe Me,” which, lyrics aside, presented itself to me as a harbinger that things were about to come to a head. Screaming synth organs and wayward guitar shreddings chaotically swimming around Parker’s voice singing “She just won’t believe me” are a weird blip on the radar, but perhaps it’s the chaos that happens when the mind is left completely to itself. A confrontation comes in the next track, which was probably the most important track in my isolated experience of Lonerism.
“Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” is the longest track on the album, and it presents to the mind another wandering landscape filled with every musical color and topography possible. And now the mind doesn’t know what it wants. There’s freedom within itself, but then there’s the world back down there. There are people and things I care about down there. Parker comes to this realization just as I did: “Heavy blow/ Down I go/ Now I just want to let go./ Is it right?/ Is it wrong?/ I don’t know/ It’s not the cause I’m fighting for anymore/ But it sucks to keep on running.” The music is taking you to crazy places, at times bumping along to a synth groove under a steady drum beat, other times stranding you alone with a weird-sounding harpsichord thing. Samples of people talking, occassionally someone speaking directly to you, are beginning to eek their way into the track. Is the world calling you back? Suddenly you’re aware that even in your mind’s perfect independence, maybe nothing that has happened has been anything you could control.
So you ask, how was the experience? My answer: nothing short of profound. The ability to separate one’s mind and experience the music as its own entity that completely occupies your whole being was revelatory, and Lonerism was the perfect complement to such a journey. The album itself is a testament to the way the mind attempts to operate in this battle between the forces of the world and the forces of the inner being. And musically, the album is fantastic. Don’t believe me? Read just about any review on a popular publication. Now, granted, to use Kevin Parker’s own words in “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control,” it could be that “maybe I’m just reading into it a little deeper than I should.” But maybe I’m not. Make of this what you will, but I think at the very least, we would be a wayward bunch if we were to completely discount the value of ars gratia artis.
This article was originally published in the Princeton University newspaper The Nassau Weekly.