By: Amanda McMillan
When Aussie group Tame Impala released their debut album InnerSpeaker in 2010, it was difficult to determine if it would have any staying power. When it was dropped onto the music scene, surrounded by bubblegum pop stars, it felt like a fever dream. The top-selling artists at the time were Rihanna, Ke$ha, and a very fresh-faced Justin Bieber. Although MGMT had broken out of the alt-rock box and managed to trickle into the mainstream with their trippy major hit single “Electric Feel” a couple of years prior, alt-rock had certainly lost its steam coming out of the aughts and pop was more than dominating. Tame Impala’s nostalgic psychedelia seemingly came out of nowhere.
With an undeniable likeness to the first side of The Beatles’ Revolver, InnerSpeaker brought a certain late-60s vibe into the 21st century with a lot of distortion and digitized synth, like it ran everything through the Matrix. A little chaotic and busy at times, the album is perhaps a nod to Australian ‘party culture’...or merely opening the door into Kevin Parker’s brain. In that way, Innerspeaker truly stood on its own, unique not only sonically but also from a production perspective. Kevin Parker wrote, recorded, and produced a majority of the album himself (with help from Jay Watson and Dominic Simper). Similar to the writing and composition of the 60s, Parker created an album that felt like some sort of sonic experiment. He takes his time to get to the point, and now that we have the benefit of being able to reflect on Tame Impala’s discography as a whole, InnerSpeaker was evidently just the beginning.
It almost seems as though Parker was playing around, trying things out, and he decided to hit record. To say this album is experimental is an understatement, especially when you look at what it was surrounded by at the time. Almost defiant of the Music Making Machine, it wasn’t put out to appease a specific sub-genre of listeners, it was meant to call into question the entire process of making a record in a new decade, in a new era of the music industry.
In his own words, Kevin Parker explains the album as lo-fi and gritty, but at the same time arranged in an electronic manner. So it's less like a band recording in a room. Things come in and out - a drumbeat sounding more like it's been sampled for example. It's funny how your objectives change throughout the project, though.
In the end, I think I was a little disappointed that I didn't make it as face-punching as possible. A little rambling at times (the longest song stands at over seven minutes), the album doesn’t really have the same stand out moments that the rest of his discography would end up having. But, it’s still hard to believe that an album like InnerSpeaker, in its infinite strangeness, is one that Parker considers to be something he toned down. It would seem that the focus for Parker on this album was to create a “wall of sound” that he would then use as a bit of a baseline for the sonic identity of Tame Impala. Lyrically, the album explores themes around relationships, self-doubt, and feeling like an outsider. Perhaps it is from these themes that Parker didn’t feel her could land on something “face-punching”, as his focus was more on introspection and passive observations rather than movement and force.
Generally speaking, the album went on to be quite successful from a critical perspective. Among its accolades it was named Rolling Stone’s Album of the Year, it won a J Award for Australian Album of the Year, and ranked 43rd out of 50 on Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of the Year. For a debut album from a non-American band, that’s a pretty good record. However, it’s their sophomore release Lonerism that would end up being Tame Impala’s most critically acclaimed album, going on to again win the coveted title of Rolling Stone Album of the Year, place Tame Impala as the first band to ever win two J awards, and win a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. One might argue that without the momentum and experimental nature of InnerSpeaker, the gospel of Tame Impala that would eventually follow, would perhaps have never been preached.
InnerSpeaker is the kind of album that meanders more than anything, but it is certainly a reminder that all who wander are not lost. While Lonerism, and indeed later Currents may be thought of as the bigger prizes in the band’s initial trio of work, InnerSpeaker simply requires a little more work from its listeners. Instead of handing us a shiny platter, InnerSpeaker has us panning for gold. Ten years later, the little nuggets shine just as brightly on their own as they did before. The album is far from perfect, and in Kevin Parker’s own evaluation of his work, it is, perhaps in some places, lacking. But it was the start of something bigger than this collection of songs, it was the foundation upon which Tame Impala would inevitably build a home and invite us all inside.
For me, this is not an album I go back to on a regular basis (the way I do with Currents and more frequently now The Slow Rush). My personal Tame Impala journey did not start with this album, but rather somewhere in-between the release of the singles “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (Lonerism) and “Let It Happen” (Currents). I had to work my way backwards to this first release (and even further for their initial EP). Realizing that it had been ten years since its release, I thought it was as good a time as any to give it another spin. Trying to track between placing myself in 2010 and knowing what I know now from the band, it was difficult to get into a headspace for this album. But once I let go of all of that, I started to hear things that I hadn’t noticed before and it made the album feel almost new again.
If you haven’t revisited this album in a while, or if you haven’t listened to it at all, I highly recommend giving it a whirl. Like every Tame Impala album, there is plenty to explore and uncover, and although this album has aged, it still sounds just as sweet.