In typical press release form, the press release for Tame Impala’s upcoming album, The Slow Rush, makes some lofty claims. “Continuing the expansion of a musical palette that started at psych rock and shattered from [debut album] Innerspeaker upwards, The Slow Rush explores new space and sounds,” it gushes.
It’s true, the album covers some terrain that mastermind Kevin Parker’s never touched before, and it often seems to “travel backwards and forwards in time.” But the predominant “new sound” under Tame Impala’s belt is a profoundly dated one: soft rock.
If you take some liberties with “started at psych rock and shattered upwards”— say, “followed a natural progression”— Tame Impala’s trajectory actually makes a ton of sense. Their 2010 debut album, Innerspeaker, took most of its cues from the psychedelic era of the late ‘60s — note the umpteen comparisons between Parker’s voice and John Lennon’s, and reviews noting similarities to The Kinks or Jimi Hendrix, or suggesting that Parker’s native Perth, Australia is so isolated that “no new music has reached it since 1969.”
Some bands commit so hard to late-’60s psych that they never use an instrument or effect that wasn’t already developed by 1969. Tame Impala have committed even harder to their late-‘60s influences; just like them, they’ve pivoted to soft rock a decade after their initial psychedelic explosion. That process was just starting on 2012’s more eclectic, still very trippy Lonerism, and truly began in earnest on 2015’s Currents, which often foregrounded more synths and pop melodies over electric guitars. On The Slow Rush, the soft rock metamorphosis is complete.
In 1969, Jefferson Airplane were the acid-drenched, profane band behind the searing protest album Volunteers; by 1979, they were the marketable, platinum-selling Jefferson Starship. In 1969, The Grateful Dead released Live/Dead, the quintessential document of San Francisco’s hair-raising psych concerts; in 1979, they were in between the disco-influenced Shakedown Street and the breezy Go to Heaven. Crosby, Stills and Nash went from “Almost Cut My Hair” to cleaned-up sailing enthusiasts. Fleetwood Mac went from recording “psychedelic blues odysseys” to glossy blockbusters. Historically, this is the most natural path for a psychedelic rock band to follow: Less radical stagnation, more de-fanged maturation.
Of course, there’s a reason why Tame Impala has always stood out in a crowd of contemporary shaggy-haired, tiny-sunglassed psych revivalists, and that hasn’t changed on The Slow Rush. Parker’s music, despite its reverence for the past, is never purely carbon copy pastiche. Innerspeaker, with its funky drumming, krautrock-inspired song structures, and washed out synths, was never as paint-by-numbers as some critics said it was. The Slow Rush is even less so: While it revitalizes uncool tones from the ‘70s and ‘80s heyday of soft rock and AOR in a way that’s not dissimilar to what indie heroes Destroyer did with sophisti-pop on 2010's Kaputt, reimagining them from the vantage point of modern dance music and hip-hop. And contrary to the schmaltzy pap that defines a good deal of soft rock songwriting, The Slow Rush is, lyrically speaking, Tame Impala’s deepest and most meditative album yet.
Here are 10 soft rock-adjacent artists, ranging from proggy experimentalists to power ballad schmoozers to washed-up classic rockers to Motown legends, whose work most noticeably informs The Slow Rush, with a playlist of their relevant material included at the end.
Of all the artists on this list, 10cc are the closest analogue to Tame Impala in 2020. The comparison goes beyond similarities in sound — 10cc were every bit as arty and deep as Kevin Parker is. With four primary songwriters, the band often seemed to be pulling itself in multiple directions at once (whereas Parker manages that feat all on his own), but the pop chops of each and every member kept a level head on the band’s sound during their 1973-78 peak.
Slow Rush opener “One More Year” kicks off with a rich synth pad Parker made by sampling his own voice. Perhaps the first and most famous usage of this technique is on the biggest hit of 10cc’s career, 1975’s swooning, otherworldly ballad “I’m Not in Love.” Parker blends this with a dance music thump, to the point that it starts to resemble 2003 house banger “In Love With You” by French duo The Paradise.
Additional cross-pollination occurs throughout the album when Parker outfits retro sounds with the tempo and harder-hitting drums of hip hop — seriously, “Breathe Deeper” sounds like a long-lost Bad Boy flip of silky ‘70s soul — and 10cc weren’t strangers to either of those. By sampling encyclopedia WhoSampled.com’s count, 64 10cc songs have been mined for samples, most of them by hip hop artists. Some prominent examples include J Dilla’s Donuts, which samples 10cc on back-to-back tracks to kick off the album (“The Worst Band in the World” on “Workinonit” and “Johnny, Don’t Do It” on “Waves”), and of the 28 tracks that have flipped “I’m Not in Love,” Roc Marciano’s “76” and Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s “S–tsville” rank among the most notable.
Elsewhere on The Slow Rush, you can hear traces of the contrasting hard-edged guitars and smooth groove of 10cc’s “Wall Street Shuffle,” the woozy “I’m Mandy Fly Me,” the Wurlitzer organ on “For You and I,” and the funky, conga-driven wistfulness of “Marriage Bureau Rendezvous.”
This Long Island duo of identical twins spent the mid-to-late ‘70s making silky easy listening music. Despite the much more gargantuan sound of The Slow Rush, Parker’s airy tenor is in the same register as the Alessis, and they use some of the same synth tones. The brothers’ “Sad Songs” begins with a minute-long buildup featuring some lovely interplay between synth, piano, and guitar, and though Impala’s “On Track” is a little more hefty and power-ballad-esque, it’s got a similar formula and structure. The breezy, conga-led “Don’t Hold Back,” minus the horns, resembles The Slow Rush’s “Tomorrow’s Dust.”
You can also hear traces of the lush, echoey synthetic tones and ripping slide guitar on “London,” and the dramatic pseudo-disco of “Dancing in the Halls of Love” at various points throughout the album.
As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, mainstream R&B began picking up some cues from soft rock. Compare the 1976 debut of Trinidadian-British singer Billy Ocean, with its organic instrumentation and Motown harmonies, to his mid-’80s commercial peak, and you’ll notice that the funk’s still there, but in the place of pianos and strings are pillowy and/or shiny synthetic tones. The singles from Ocean’s twin pinnacle LPs, 1984’s Suddenly and ‘86’s Love Zone, marked his first appearances on the Hot 100 and yielded five top five hits.
The Slow Rush shares some of its finest post-disco grooves (namely “Is It True” and the shuffling “Lost in Yesterday”) with Ocean bangers like “Caribbean Queen,” “Loverboy,” “Love Zone,” and “When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going,” albeit with no trace of those synth horns with the inherently ‘80s carbon date. Despite the relative lack of slap bass and brass in his music, Parker’s got some funk in his DNA — the kind that calls for at least five different keyboards on stage.
England Dan & John Ford Coley
On the complete opposite end of soft rock’s funk spectrum are England Dan and John Ford Coley, two Texans who spent the ‘70s making some of the whitest music you’ll ever hear, despite what the dubious title of their 1979 album Dr. Heckle & Mr. Jive might lead you to expect. After they disbanded, Dan, young brother of fellow soft rock luminary Jim Seals of Seals & Crofts, started releasing country music under his real name (Dan Seals). As a duo though, he and Coley cranked out a hybrid of post-Laurel Canyon folk and Heartland slow jams — seriously, about 75% of these guys’ discography is ballads.
Despite Parker addressing far more than shallow romance and being much more musically savvy, songs like “Nights Are Forever Without You,” “Love Is the Answer,” and “I’ll Stay” convey similarly winsome, sun-kissed vibes to The Slow Rush’s.
Across their 30-year career, Genesis released 15 albums and traversed psychedelia, progressive rock, art rock, and eventually, after the departure of original lead singer Peter Gabriel, soft rock. Between 1978 and ‘92, the Phil Collins-led iteration of the band enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, landing all but six of their 27 singles on the Hot 100, including 10 within the Top 10. Similarly to Collins’ solo career (as Patrick Bateman would gladly tell you), Genesis’ popularity mirrored their accessibility. But whereas Collins’ albums began to gravitate towards bombastic drums and irrepressibly ‘80s synth brass, late-period Genesis really leaned on keyboard/synth player Tony Banks, who kept the band’s tones interesting despite more formulaic songwriting.
Their 1983 self-titled album still contains some nods to the group’s more technically dazzling past, including the instrumental “Second Home By the Sea” — and for that reason, it’s probably the closest Slow Rush touchstone. Hit single “That’s All” resembles the persistent, punchy stomp of Impala’s “Instant Destiny” and “Is It True,” while the groovier “Taking it All Too Hard” and “It’s Gonna Get Better” are more in line with “Tomorrow’s Dust” and the plaintive second half of “Posthumous Forgiveness.” The next two Genesis albums, 1986’s Invisible Touch and 1991’s We Can’t Dance doubled down even further on pop, and considering that Parker himself recently told Billboard that that’s his eventual goal, there are still some, if fewer, similarities to be had there. The spacey slow jams “In Too Deep” and “Hold on My Heart,” in particular, display the sort of sexy restraint at which Parker excels.
As mentioned earlier, Jefferson [insert airborne vehicle] changed drastically from their initial identity as one of the central bands in San Francisco’s psychedelic explosion to a pop rock juggernaut in the ‘70s and ‘80s (note: due to a legal dispute, the band were forced to shorten their name to “Starship” in 1984, after which they released their most commercially successful music, including three No. 1 singles). Initially, Jefferson Starship retained core Airplane members Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, but as each departed, in ‘78 and ‘84, respectively, they moved further afield from the band’s original countercultural vibe.
As far as Tame Impala’s concerned, Starship’s most Slow Rush-esque iteration came in the post-Balin years between 1979’s Freedom at Point Zero and 1987’s No Protection, the period after they’d ditched all but the most fleeting traces of the Airplane sound and were slowly shifting from the heavier AOR of the ‘70s to the synthier ‘80s. Freedom at Point Zero is, at times, a little too brawny to be considered straight soft rock, but there’s definitely shades of its riff-centric barnstormers “Jane” and “Awakening” in Slow Rush closer “One More Hour.” Their most synth-heavy and wigged-out subsequent material, such as “Alien” and “No Way Out,” hew even closer to Impala’s dramatic peaks.
Similarly to Dan Seals (AKA England Dan), Paul Davis was a Southern-bred singer whose career straddled country and soft rock. The difference is that Davis moved from the former to the latter, and when he got there, his material was much more synth-heavy than of Dan and John Ford Colely’s. His 1980 self-titled album and 1981’s Cool Night contain a wealth of Slow Rush-esque slow burners, such as the heartsick “Love Me or Let Me Be Lonely,” the groovy “Too Slow to Disco,” and especially the proto-chillwave hit single “Cool Night.” Hear similarly languid tones on The Slow Rush’s “Posthumous Forgiveness” and “Tomorrow’s Dust.” As something of a bonus cut, Davis’ contribution to the Karate Kid soundtrack, “(It Takes) Two to Tango,” absolutely slaps.
Really? The “Pina Colada” guy? You bet. While The Slow Rush may never come within sniffing distance of the swingin’ yacht rock of Holmes’ most (in)famous song, it definitely shares some white boy funk DNA with lesser-known cuts on his 1979 album, Partners in Crime. Witness how Holmes marries R&B guitar chops with swirling synths on the title track, how he attempts a Steely Dan rip on “Lunch Hour” and ends up with something a little less brainy but just as crisp as anything on Aja, how “Answering Machine” shifts from tight-knit verses to spacious choruses. Parker’s got a similarly tangential relationship to R&B, and you can catch whiffs of Holmes on tracks like “Borderline” and “Is It True.”
While Motown legend Smokey Robinson always stayed true to R&B, he founded the subgenre that’s basically R&B’s version of soft rock, “quiet storm,” in the mid-’70s. There’s a good deal of plush R&B from the ‘70s and ‘80s that resembles moments on The Slow Rush — the initial melody on “Posthumous Forgiveness” is a dead ringer for the central horn riff on Isaac Hayes’ version of “The Look Of Love,” Lionel Richie’s synthiest material could be cited — but Robinson covers enough ground on his own.
You can start with the title track on the 1975 album that inspired it all, Quiet Storm. As is, the song’s breezy synths and clutch drum fills provide enough of a throughline to Parker’s playing, and if you add in the fact that the song was flipped for De La Soul’s 1993 classic “Breakadawn,” you get a rap-bolstered boost, a la 10cc. Elsewhere on Robinson’s album, the herky-jerky “Love Letters” is driven by subterranean-worming synth bass that’s similar to those found on Impala’s “Borderline” and “Breathe Deeper.” And although Robinson’s material would grow even more placid into the ‘80s, singles like 1981’s “Being With You” and 1987’s “One Heartbeat” have similar atmospheres to The Slow Rush’s quieter moments.
In an interview with Apple Music about The Slow Rush, Kevin Parker was quoted saying, “I love Supertramp melodies, kind of ‘70s prog, emotional things.” As that’s the only specific influence he’s named for this album, we’d be fools not to include the English rockers on this list. While they never got as proggy as Genesis or King Crimson, Supertramp deftly blended idiosyncratic song structures and pop hooks, something Parker knows a thing or two about. The closest thing to The Slow Rush in ‘Tramp’s discography is their debut, 1974’s Crime of the Century, which includes some King Crimson Lite (the “21st Century Schizoid Man”-esque bombast of “Bloody Well Right”) and the highwire drama of the title track, which would go on to be sampled for Fabolous’ mid-'00s smash “Breathe.”
Even in the cheesier moments of Supertramp’s later albums, there are connections to be drawn. The iconic Wurlitzer tone on two singles from 1979’s Breakfast In America, “Goodbye Stranger” and “The Logical Song,” pops up on The Slow Rush’s “It Might Be Time” and “One More Hour.” Like most familiar tones on the album, Parker skillfully repackages them for a new audience.