Over the course of a decade and three albums, Kevin Parker has taken his Tame Impala project from small-sounding, Beatles-indebted, pop-leaning psych-rock to big-sounding, ELO-indebted, pysch-rock-leaning pop. “Patience,” Tame Impala’s first single since the release of Currents in 2015, continues this mutation. Unlike the best moments of Currents, however, the song’s crowd-pleasing impulses are not entirely successful, representing the first time Parker’s move toward slicker, dancier sounds has brought about diminishing returns.
“Patience” opens with chunky house piano chords, disco synth strings, a loping midtempo backbeat, and some tastefully deployed congas. Just about everything is run through a whooshing space-age phaser, the sole remnant from Parker’s paisley Innerspeaker days. Other than that, it’s a bit like the poolside Spotify pop of Calvin Harris’s last album, but even more self-consciously retro. Parker seems like he has a respectable record collection, and it’s doubtful that he’s actively trying to emulate anyone on Harris’ level. More likely, it’s a case of shared inspiration, digging into the same sparkly-clean ‘70s dancefloor hits and obscurities that everyone else is so enamored by lately.
But the difference between “Patience” and a classic like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is that one is sung by Sylvester, and the other is sung by Kevin Parker. In the disco era, a lead vocalist was expected to project style, sex, verve, humor, swagger—to give a performance of some kind. (Calvin Harris understands this, and he’s lucky enough to have Pharrell and Frank Ocean in his phone book.) Kevin Parker is not a disco singer. He’s an indie-pop auteur, and a remarkably gifted one: the hooks of “Patience” are as sharp as ever, and they’re likely to sink in after only a listen or two. But the song doesn’t leave you with much more than an earworm.
As a vocal presence, Parker is airy and unaffected. On his past records, you got the sense that this mild-mannered studio wizard was singing mostly because the presence of another person would threaten to disrupt the gorgeous and intricate hermetic world he’d constructed for himself. The insularity was part of the appeal—not for nothing is the second Tame Impala album called Lonerism—but as Parker’s pop ambitions continue to grow, it’s beginning to feel more like a liability. A true pop personality could do wonders with Parker’s melodies and arrangements, as Rihanna did with her largely faithful rendition of “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” It’s not clear, however, that Parker is that person himself.