The Loneliness of Tame Impala’s Lonerism

February 18, 2020 0 By Kailee Schamberger


Perth is one of the most isolated major cities
in the world. With just over 2 million people living in
Perth, the closest city with a population of at least 100,000 is Adelaide, over 2,000
kilometers away. To Perth’s east is the uninhabitable Australian
outback, and to its west is the sparse Indian Ocean. Perth is a lonely urban oasis, and it’s
also the birthplace of some of the best psychedelic rock bands of the 2010’s. Which kind of makes sense, if you think about
it. The psychedelic rock movement sprung up in
the 1960’s, when seminal bands such as The Beatles and the Beach Boys started to experiment
with hallucinogenic drugs and incorporate their use into the songwriting process. They attempted to capture in their music the
dissociative experience of being on these psychoactive drugs. Long extended jams would take you under the
music’s influence as exotic instruments transport you to far unknown frontiers. Droning and buzzing timbres provide a hazy
backdrop that blurs your peripherals, while unsteady guitar effects like the wah-wah and
whammy bend the environment around you, as strange digital manipulations infect your
mind, all of which creates a surreal, insular soundscape. From the very beginning, isolation was written
into the DNA of psychedelic music. Fast forward sixty years and quite poetically
the lonesome Australian city of Perth has become a haven for psych rock, birthing some
of the biggest modern acts in the scene and ushering in a psychedelic revival across the
country. And that idea of isolation continues to be
explored in the music, in particular by one man named Kevin Parker. Despite releasing his music under a band name,
Tame Impala is a solitary project, with Kevin the sole singer and songwriter, performing
and recording most of the instruments, and doing a vast majority of the production all
himself. Music is not so much a collaborative process
for Parker, but an introspective expression of self. This is because Kevin is a self-professed
introvert, something he explores on Tame Impala’s breakthrough debut album Innerspeaker. On the track Solitude is Bliss, he romanticises
a life lived alone, relishing in the small pleasures of isolation and finding freedom
in solitude. (“Nothing else matters, I don’t care what
I miss / company’s okay, solitude is bliss.”) Tame Impala’s 2012 follow-up Lonerism was
a direct continuation of this idea. Being written in the wake of Innerspeaker’s
huge global success that catapulted Kevin onto the global stage, Lonerism explored the
impact this international attention had on his introverted mind. It was a new kind of isolation; not solitude,
but social disconnection. That feeling of being in a crowd of people
and yet feeling completely alone. This idea is established before you even hit
play on the record. The title itself evokes the lifestyle of a
loner, Kevin said with the album he was “trying to glorify being a loner.” It’s also achieved through the album art,
a photograph taken by Kevin at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, where he spent some
time working on the album. You can see people in the gardens relaxing,
sunbathing, just generally enjoying themselves and the company of others. However the photographer is not part of the
scene – your perspective is separated by a wrought iron fence. In a way it feels voyeuristic, that you are
an unseen and unknown observer. And Kevin immediately addresses this feeling
of anonymity in the album’s opening track Be Above It. (“And I gotta bide my time as a face in
the crowd.”) Throughout its twelve tracks, Lonerism consistently
makes reference to antisocial behaviour. The song Elephant is a portrait of a man so
arrogant and egotistical that he drives away other people. (“Bet he feels like an elephant / shaking
his big grey trunk for the hell of it.”) The obnoxious swagger of its chunky guitar
hook paints the subject as someone large and imposing, who pushes themselves into the center
of attention and demands to be noticed. This ultimately alienates him as others try
to distance themselves from him, and try to ignore the elephant in the room. On the song “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?”,
Kevin laments a strange dichotomy experienced by introverts: the feeling of loneliness. While he once found bliss in solitude and
was happy in his isolation, he now admits he does crave human interaction, just like
anybody else. (“Destined to be lonely old me / whoopsie-daisy,
I thought I was happy.”) Speaking as an introvert myself, introversion
does not make you immune to loneliness. Although socialisation can be exhausting and
we require that “alone time” to recover our energy, introverts do still share in that
innate human desire for community. Kevin realises that despite perhaps not enjoying
all aspects of social interaction, it’s important and healthy to connect with others and maintain
relationships. But Lonerism isn’t content with just speaking
about its themes. It’s one thing to describe how loneliness
feels, but Kevin goes one step further and attempts to make you feel his experience of
loneliness and social disconnection through the actual music. Tucked in between the album’s two biggest
hits is a track called “Keep on Lying.” After a pair of verses up front, the song
gives way to an extended jam quite typical of psychedelic music. You start to disassociate as the hypnotic
guitar riff loops, the euphoric synth builds and the heavy reverb displaces your sense
of time. And then you begin to hear the sound of conversation
– like a dinner party that you’re physically present at, but mentally only semi-conscious. You try to engage, you try to listen to the
conversation but you can’t make out any words or sentences, just the laughs and jovial
yelps of people having fun. You want to join in, you want to be a part
of the fun but you just can’t seem to connect with any one person. The music just continues to build eventually
drowning out the people. The conversation becoming misplaced in the
hazy psychedelic soundscape and you find yourself lost in the noise. A face in the crowd, behind the iron gates
of the fence… [narration gets overwhelmed by music] And that is the feeling of Lonerism. Being surrounded by people, but completely
alone. Present, but disconnected. Social, but isolated. To me, Keep on Lying is the centrepiece of
Lonerism. It perfectly captures a feeling I know all
too well as an introvert – the alienation that stems from not being able to completely
engage in social situations. Lonerism co-opts the dissociative effect of
psychedelic music and applies it to a feeling that was so pervasive throughout the entire
2010’s. The decade of social media which was supposed
to connect us more than ever has ironically made many of us feel all the more socially
isolated. Lonerism will stand as an image of this era,
when our lives were more crowded than ever before, and yet we felt so alone