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Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush is the Defining Album of 2020

Kevin Parker and Tame Impala may have anticipated a pandemic with their February release, The Slow Rush.EXPAND
Kevin Parker and Tame Impala may have anticipated a pandemic with their February release, The Slow Rush.
Mike Brooks
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It’s almost like he knew it was coming. Last Valentine's Day,  as couples around the world were celebrating many forms of romantic bliss, others gathered around their speakers or donned headphones in anticipation. After five years, Tame Impala had finally released The Slow Rush, the follow-up to their decade-defining 2015 album Currents. People listened to it on their morning jog, at their desks at work, with their significant others, and a select few honored the decades-old ritual of removing a record from its sleeve and placing it on a turntable.

No matter the format, the opening wash of “One More Year” swept up everyone. Every listener heard the same song from the same man, Kevin Parker.

A cursory listen of the record revealed the album’s central theme: time — too much, not enough. At the time, most listeners and critics understood the album as 34-year-old Parker’s ruminations on how too much time on your hands can make it disappear more quickly than when you don’t have enough; the anxieties of growing older much faster than your ambitions can keep up; and the dangers of looking back too much while what’s in front of you disappears under your wheels.

No one could have predicted that less than 30 days after The Slow Rush’s release, the country would be in the grip of a global pandemic.

If you’re a music-savvy individual, there’s a decent chance that one of your last memories before the pandemic hit involved listening to The Slow Rush. Perhaps you had a hip bartender friend who played the record in its entirety at the bar on the night of its release, maybe you were working as a delivery driver for a flower company short on time and long on roses, maybe you listened to it every evening on the drive home from class or work. Good times.

Now, 10 months/43 weeks/three seasons and many reasons later, the profundity of The Slow Rush is so blindingly obvious that it hurts.

While other masterful records like Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Run The Jewels’ RTJ4 and Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher express the angst, rage, and depression, respectively, that came to a cultural head at some point during the pandemic, The Slow Rush expresses anxiety about the nature of the year itself, the fact that our time was robbed from us while we had more time than ever.

Many of Parker’s lyrics on The Slow Rush read like journal entries. The opening lines of “One More Year” seemed cautionary back in February, but now they sting as if saying “I told you so.”

Do you remember? We were standing here a year ago
Our minds were racin', time went slow
If there was trouble in the world, we didn't know
If we had a care, it didn't show

But now I worry our horizons bear nothing new
'Cause I get this feeling and maybe you get it too
We're on a roller coaster stuck on its loop-de-loop
'Cause what we did, one day on a whim, will slowly become all we do

In a Monkey’s Paw-esque case of irony, fate twisted the knife as we whinged for decades about not wanting to go to work or school, until one day it came true. Of course, some can interpret these lyrics as referring to the perpetuation of vices or bad habits that hang around long past a time in one’s life to give them up: drinking with buddies until 2 a.m., running around and never settling down or any other tendencies that keep many a millennial awake at night repeating quietly to themselves, “I don’t want to be an adult yet, I don’t want to settle down.” 

This anxiety is ameliorated (or more likely, being mocked) on the album’s second track, “Instant Destiny.”

I'm about to do something crazy
No more delayin'
No destiny is too far

Only to resurface immediately alongside regret on the following track, “Borderline:”

We're on the borderline
Caught between the tides of pain and rapture
Possibly a sign

Elsewhere on the record, Parker wrestles with both the greatest enemy of progress and the greatest ally in times of trouble: memories. On “Posthumous Forgiveness,” he grapples with his absent father not having lived to see his son’s success, and on “Tomorrow’s Dust,” he instructs young people who feel disconnected from older generations to let go and focus on themselves.

There's no use trying to relate
To that older soul
And no use trying to debate
That they've got it wrong
There's no use pining for love
When you're on your own
And no use crying outside
If nobody's home
There's no use flying to the moon
If they won't believe

However, on “Lost in Yesterday,” Parker spars directly with the past and its seductive deception — as many of us have — arriving at possibly the biggest surprise philosophical revelation on the record:

Now even though that was a time I hated from day one
Eventually, terrible memories turn into great ones

I’ve thought about that last line quite a bit over the last 10 months, but none of those revelations hold a candle to The Slow Rush’s centerpiece (and arguably Tame Impala’s masterpiece) “On Track," which serves as a sort of thesis statement for the album as a whole. Three months into the pandemic, I think it’s safe to say that most of us uncovered our eyes and began to realize that, despite the horrendous personal discomfort and the apparent collapse of civilization around us, we're doing a pretty good job of simply maintaining.

The world ain't cheerin' for you, nothin' to lose it over
We're just a shuttle over, the rest comes easy
The rest comes easy

The Slow Rush up until this point has been more or less a party, carrying the sort of guilty pleasure you get when you go to the bar knowing damn well you have work the next morning; it's a bash-for-the-ages that is occasionally interrupted by why-am-I-crying-in-the-club-right-now splashes of reality, with a groove so good that you forget about it. You and Kevin Parker both.

Parker’s hero-worship of Todd Rundgren’s maximalist kaleidoscopic facetiousness comes together with his open admiration for pop mastermind producer Max Martin. The colors and the layers are here, but they’re packed into wall-to-wall hooks.

This makes “On Track” the first real reality check on the album, both musically and lyrically. The funny thing is, despite the dose of reality that “On Track” is, it also feels like a weight off of your shoulders. The first minute and 20 seconds of the track are without any kind of beat or percussive instruction — no dancing, no party, just a breath of air — to the point that Parker’s voice and piano feel confessional, like a friend who needs to let out a good cry. Even then, the sparseness of the track doesn’t feel as earthbound as most piano ballads do, and that can be attributed to Parker’s masterful and glistening production.

Parker’s voice shimmers with a God-like omnipresence. The confession is a universal one of great joy; by the time the drums walk in at 1:42, they don’t make you want to dance, they make you want to strut. The lyrics agree: “But strictly speaking, I’m still on track.”

Parker closes the record with a Jacob Marley-like warning (possibly aimed at himself) coupled with a reassuring pat on the back on “One More Hour”:

Just a moment
Right before all the singin' ends
Wasn't brave enough to tell you
There ain't gonna be another chance

The 2020 pandemic is beyond a once-in-a-generation opportunity for improvement — technologically, socially, culturally, and most important, personally. Parker isn't calling for the entire population to rise up and run to the window with glee like a rehabilitated Scrooge on Christmas morning. He’s calling for every person to take stock of themselves and note that the clock is ruthless, and you might as well make the best of every spin.

It’s practically guaranteed that in 40 years, a group of people will be gathered around a table in a packed restaurant and reminisce fondly about the long-passed trials and tribulations of the great pandemic of 2020, much like how our parents and grandparents recall the widespread fear and confusion that surrounded the Cuban missile crisis.

Eventually, the terrible memories attached to the pandemic will become so distant that they will be overtaken by great ones, made by those who are striving to never let this affect them again. The Slow Rush is a testament to that, almost as if Parker delivered the record from the future — a future within grasp, when the pandemic is a long distant memory and humans continue to ponder their place in the world as opposed to being preoccupied with staying alive.

It’s a world where the boundaries between musical genres are almost completely blurred out: hip-hop, disco, art rock, psychedelic rock and synthpop peacefully occupy the same groove in order to deliver a simple, reassuring message: The rest comes easy.

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