If Kevin Parker had slept for a little while longer, he could have died. On November 9, 2018, he was awakened by a frantic message from his manager, Parker told Rolling Stone last year. The day before, a wildfire ignited in Woolsey Canyon in Southern California, a massive blaze was racing through the hillsides, and it was about to reach him in Malibu. At the time, Parker, the singer and producer behind the Australian psychedelic rock project Tame Impala, was renting an oceanfront house, where he was half way done working on a new album.
November 8 ended normally for Parker: He drifted off after an evening of chilling out, smoking weed, and sketching out a few songs on guitar. A drumbeat he made earlier was playing on continuous loop, like some ambient lullaby. He said he woke up to his manager’s message around 10 am. After quickly researching the fire (and panicking), Parker grabbed his laptop and his favorite bass and got the hell out of Dodge. The rental house burned down. “It might have been a different story if I didn’t wake up when I did,” he told the magazine.
He finished the album, The Slow Rush, and it feels shaded by that near-death experience, even if he doesn’t address it directly. Instead, he centers on the finality of life, unpacking the past with a lucidity that comes from having almost perished. “A lot of the songs carry this idea of time passing, of seeing your life flash before your eyes, being able to see clearly your life from this point onwards,” Parker told The New York Times. The cover art is equally symbolic. We’re in an abandoned house whose walls are painted a fiery red. Though the windows offer a glimpse of a cloudy, baby blue sky, a flood of sand has entered the house, extinguishing all life inside. Swap Malibu flames for sand, and it represents Parker’s recent reality.
Yet he isn’t mournful. Rather, he sounds incredibly Zen and reflective, running through distant memories with a shrug and a straight face, singing through pensive and nonchalant timbres. Compared with previous records like 2010’s InnerSpeaker and 2012’s Lonerism, both of which scanned as 1960s-leaning psych-rock, The Slow Rush skews closer to 2015’s Currents as a festive blend of 1970s glam rock, tropical dance and ’80s yacht rock meant to be played at a coastal resort. Throughout the nearly hourlong LP, there’s a feeling that Parker has settled into a new state of calm and is taking life as it comes. He’s no longer stressing the daily hiccups that can turn good days to bad ones. In his world, the traffic jams aren’t so annoying—“Quite all right sitting here,” he proclaims on “Instant Destiny”—and to make it home safely to meditate is an understated blessing.
Parker’s thematic shift isn’t totally surprising. Across his three other full-length albums, he has often discussed dramatic endings like the conclusion of a relationship. On these records, Parker portrayed himself as the shoe-gazing loner who wallowed through self-doubt by questioning his shortcomings. In certain moments, like on 2015’s “Eventually,” he would openly mourns what happened while shuffling back to the solitude he seems to prefer anyway. On “Let It Happen,” the sprawling opening cut of Currents, Parker sang of a mythical disaster—possibly a tornado—that would carry off everything not anchored to the ground. In the song’s video, actor Michael Instone can’t escape death. He clutches his chest and collapses in an airport terminal. Then on a crashing airplane, he’s engulfed in seat belts and unable to flee a certain demise. After a number of failed attempts, he submits to fate and lets the inevitable occur.
The Slow Rush leans into a different kind of surrender; Parker sings of the gradual passage of time and how personal history shapes the present and future. On “One More Year,” it sounds as if he’s resting on a perch, looking off into the distance. The music around him is fitting, a gusty swirl of bright synthesizers, robotic backing vocals, and bouncy drums made for two-stepping on a beach. “Do you remember we were standing here a year ago?” he asks a presumed friend or romantic partner. Dive deeper into the lyrics; he could be talking to his wife, Sophie Lawrence Parker, whom he married almost a year ago to the day of this album’s release. “I never wanted any other way to spend our lives / I know we promised we’d be doing this until we die.”
Parker’s rise to stardom is intriguing, mostly because he has never really had those aspirations. A self-described “sensitive kid” growing up in Perth, Australia, he got into music in high school and released his first EP as Tame Impala in 2008. He has controlled every aspect of his art—writing the lyrics and arranging the songs—and works with a band only when performing the music onstage. There, Tame Impala swells into a large-scale production with lasers, a confetti cannon, and a light rig. But after years of going at it alone, he told Billboard that he wants to write pop songs for big acts. “I want to be a Max Martin,” Parker said, name checking the Swedish songwriter who has written and produced for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and more. At the helm of Tame Impala, Parker is capable of churning out stadium-size pop songs, and there’s no shortage of them on The Slow Rush. “It Might Be Time” bumps like an old Hall & Oates track, with cascading drums and undulating synth chords, but in the lyrics, Parker delves into a sad reality for most thirtysomethings: You’re not so cool anymore; it’s time to leave the nightclub and settle into adulthood.
He has spoken of his parents’ divorce and how the subsequent family drama made him recoil from just about everybody. His father reportedly left his stepmom to get back with his mother, only for them to break up again. “I liked being on my own, playing video games, exploring on my bike,” Parker told Rolling Stone. He started smoking weed at 12. In high school he was a self-proclaimed rebel who “did a bit of graffiti” until he started crafting music. That backstory might help explain the album’s most textured track, “Posthumous Forgiveness,” a shape-shifting confessional seemingly written to his father, who died in 2009 from skin cancer. Here, he ponders, “I always thought heroes stay close whenever troubled times arose…. / And while you still have time, you had a chance, but you decided to take all your sorrys to the grave.” Parker then delves into how the divorce continues to affect him and his brother. His father died well before any of this—before Parker’s debut LP and his becoming a world-famous rock star. “Wanna tell you ’bout my life,” he sings. “Wanna play you all my songs. And hear your voice sing along.” Therein lies the crux of Tame Impala’s genius and the beauty of The Slow Rush, his most contemplative work: Parker filters the bleakest parts of himself through a thick and vibrant lens. Even as he expels his private demons, he’s encouraging us to dance to his pain.