Kevin Parker has nothing to prove to tonight’s crowd. Of the 35,000 attending Australia’s premier mass celebration of youth culture close to all of them will be here singing along to his songs, roaring in applause and dancing to his music no matter what. Yet the pressure sits heavy upon his shoulders. It’s the same feeling every time he goes on stage. He’s not content to rest upon past achievements. He’s going to give everything he has to prove himself once more. He's a perfectionist, he doesn’t do anything in half measure.
‘Let It Happen’ opens. The song arrives with an inbuilt sense of grandeur, it’s an arena (or this case natural amphitheatre) filling song, one which catches all of the monolithic sense of scale and majesty of a Zeppelin or Sabbath record but just as equally is something that you can dance to. Thousands around me do so and continue to do so as ‘Patience’ follows.
Lasers shimmer across the night sky. Relentless waves of light projections wash over me alongside a strong tide of emotion. It’s something which I might otherwise have found mesmeric were I not so deeply drawn into the music and rhythm of the performance itself. It takes me to a bliss point where my consideration for all other things excluding sound itself falls away and I’m not even sure that I’m at Splendour in the Grass anymore.
‘Eventually’ arrives not long after and like many Tame Impala songs from third album Currents, it carries a certain kind of ecstasy. I’m really grooving on it, make no mistake, but the best tonight of tonight's songs are the ones like ‘It Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, the kind which deals in isolation, uncertainty and emotional fallout. There are few other artists who can convey these feelings so completely.
At the heart of all is Kevin’s vocals. He draws his doubts, hopes, dreams, and euphorias out from the innermost corners of his mind and manifests them as music. Sure, he can craft simple and functional pop lyrics too when the occasion calls for it but the emotional eddies of ‘Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?’ take me somewhere the wriest and most studied pop lyricists never can.
A lot of Tame Impala songs seem to stem from the melancholy of being a mixed-up kid from a broken family, one with little or no feeling of self-worth. There’s something tragic about that, Parker is a victim of a childhood he has never seemed completely able to escape. But you don’t have to have walked in the exact same shoes to connect with what he’s singing. You only have to at some point have felt isolated, alienated or alone. I don’t know about you, but certainly have. And when these feelings have overcome my life, my sense of worth or pushed me to the limits of feeling like I can’t go on, these have been the times when I’ve connected with music the most.
But this is getting too far away from what I’m trying to say about Kevin Parker. As a songwriter, there’s an awesome complexity to him. There are plenty of artists out there in the world who can match him in terms of drive to succeed and grand creative vision but in terms of the sheer emotion he can manifest within his music? I would say that he has few if any peers. Whether he’s expressing joy or agony I don’t think he’s ever holding anything back.
Walking away from the set I stay firm in my conviction that it’s the songs of Lonerism which stood out the most. They seem to have endured the test of time. And at that Parker’s consistent dedication to elevating Tame Impala's live show to the next level has them sounding better than the last three times I’ve seen the band since the release of Lonerism in 2012.
There is just such an immense sense of feeling to those songs. It makes me think they might just have a timeless quality. The kind that, for all their merit, the giddier pop tones of Currents and the psychedelic epiphanies of InnerVisions simply won’t be able to match in the years that come.
Australian music - popular music in general - is stacked with good and talented middle-order bands. But the difference between these and those that are at the absolute top? It’s a quantum leap. Tame Impala is one of those rarefied acts that are more than their moment, more than a reflection of what’s popular or what’s going on in the world right now. This isn’t about having a good haircut or a cool pose or the right radio hype or having someone in the band who’s in movies or even making a critically celebrated album. There’s something about Tame Impala’s music and story grows outward and into your life. Kevin Parker is all too human and the humanity keeps bleeding into his music as he’s grown, succeeded, failed, tried new things, expanded, contracted and struggled as his fans have in their own lives too.
I saw half a dozen bands this first day of Splendour. Most of them I’ll be struggling to remember the names of in a week/month/decade, but I think there’s something about Tame Impala that will stay with me the way it already has for so many years. Then again maybe this is all in the mind of the beholder. Were you there? What was it like for you?
POND started as a reaction to Tame Impala. Where Tame was dominated by Kevin Parker’s perfectionism, POND became a loose and chaotic jumble of the distinctive personalities of which it was comprised it. It has since developed in a very organic way into a band greater than the sum of its parts. The POND you can hear on their last two records Tasmania and The Weather is a band with a distinctive persona of its very own.
And this is something that I’m starting to like about them more and more. You can listen to the POND as psych rock outfit or a progressive band or even a weirded-out pop collective, sure – each time you do this you’ll get something a little different out of their songs. But you could just listen to them as POND, the band that it is a law onto itself, something which kills cliché and simply is.
This is what I’m doing as I’m sitting on a grassy hillside watching them perform their three o’clock set on the second day of the festival and greatly enjoying it. Do they deliver live? Yeah. Of course.
Day Three washes over me as the usual festival narratives of the spirit of friendship and cooperation play out. A community forms, lives together for three days and then breaks up. Within this time friendships are made, and bonds forged. Some are temporary, others will last for years. All festivals are, in a sense, temples to consumerism and shameless celebrations of materialism and excess but when cast against these dark shadows the better side of humanity always seems to triumph. People get together and the barriers between them dissolve.
“Three days of peace, love and music and all that yeah, yeah, yeah you old kook but what about the music?”
Right! Chance the Rapper’s last-minute cancellation leaves a sizeable absence the Hilltop Hoods struggle to fill. James Blake, SZA and Matt Corby also play. I see them all but not at any point do I experience the same feelings as when ‘Let It Happen’, ‘Eventually’, ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ and ‘It Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ were crashing down on top of me.
Kevin Parker and his band had given it everything they had on that first night and I was realising by the end of it all that I had too. Tame Impala brought me to the peak of my festival experience. This happened a little early in the proceedings I'll admit, but I make no apologies for that. I saw the crest of the wave and threw myself on it, before tackling it to the ground and grabbing it with both arms. On Saturday I paid the price for this and by Sunday I was all but zombified, little more than a walking corpse dragging itself around as the empty husk of the human it had become.
But what can I say? When the moment comes you take it. I hope that wherever and however you found yours that it was as enjoyable as mine.
Vibrations by Riley Fitzgerald/Photo by Stephen Booth
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