The Flaming Lips
At War With The Mystics
OK I don't really hate the new Flaming Lips record, I kinda like it, but the juvenile pun was too good to pass up. And there is some truth in my cheap shot. I am one of those that will cite the Soft Bulletin and a life-changing event. I thought they were a good funky-druggy-hazy-phantaysee of a band before then, but the Soft Bulletin blew my head wide open, and has with each repeated listing about once a week for the last 8 years. Yoshimi had its work cut out for it, and while a couple of the songs hit the right mark of Pollyanna simplicity and enough excess to send wrecking balls into the Palace of Wisdom, it never really set with me. And it's an unfair thing to judge a band on a mid career pinnacle, but I do it. Rolling Stones had its Exile on Main Street, Duran Duran its Seven and the Ragged Tiger and the faded bulletin Wayne Coyne nailed to the doors of the indie rock church still holds.
So enough surfing on this wave of nostalgia, let us take the Pink pill and get this trip started. At War ups the ante on the ping-pong loopedy do studio theatrics on the first two tracks "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" - a mostly a capella song that sounds like Todd Rundgren given the Re-Animator treatment, and the dull Spyro Gyra "Free Radicals" - well didn't even Beck get tired of doing this shit?
Just as I was about to reshelve this one, that nasal while and Bacharachian orchestration comes out of my speakers like a lava flow on "The Sound Of Failure/It's Dark.Is It Always This Dark??" syncopated jazz flutes and giant minor key swoons - it's a perfect song like "Say a Little Prayer" is. It's epic like those sidelong Moody Blues pieces, but never quite descends into self parody like "Tuesday Afternoon" does. Just beautiful.
The dosage in that track has lingering effects in "My Cosmic Autumn rebellion" which shimmers and flickers like it's being reflected off a mountain lake. It's also a welcome thing that Wayne drops the nasal part and lets his voice out full throated and vulnerable. And onto the strum happy cosmic ballad "Vein of Stars" doth the river of splendor flow. The beauty of Wayne Coyne is that his lyrics are so obvious, they are massive. When he sings such fluff as "If there ain't no heaven, maybe there ain't no hell" I caught myself mid swoon pondering that Philosophy 101 nugget.
Our shuttle docks with the mothership at 'The Wizard Turns On" which sounds like it was constructed from leftover parts of Heart's "Magic Man" and serves at funky little bridge to the Goofy Part of Tonight's Program with handclap and big synth samples and studio engineered choirs on "It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big, I Am So Small.Do I Stand A Chance?" Thankfully this direction veers for the plaintive "Mr. Ambulance Driver" with a "Midnight at the Oasis" groove that totally works with his subdued vocals.
"Haven't Got a Clue" officiates an awkward marriage of the bands swoon and old school electro beats, and "The W.A.N.D" comes on with all the subtlety of, say, Billy Squier, but veers into a Supertramp space, bringing their own sense for an infectious melody to provide the life preserver the song needs in all this soup. I dunno. I blame George Harrison for all this, bringing his buddy from ELO onto the otherwise respectable showboat of the Traveling Wilburys, just so Jeff Lynne could secretly spread the seeds of indie rock music's demise with him. Ever since then, people have seemed a little too comfortable with synthesizers. But George is dead and I like the Flaming Lips more than the Beatles anyway, so fuck it.
The captain announces our descent as we pass through "Pompeii Am G??tterd?§mmerung" a song that puts the orchestral indulgences marring much of this album to good effect and our landing with the piano led (and rather pleasantly Beatle-esque, goddammit) "Goin On" which is a sweet anthem for the journey (and Journey, the band, for that matter) The Flaming Lips take me on.
So OK, it's a good album, greater than most. It has humor and pathos and texture and daring and all that, but somehow it just doesn't grab me. I still have faith that they will make the modern answer to A Night at the Opera or even to Ziggy Stardust should they endeavor to do so, but I fear this one will be a lot like Yoshimi in that when I get halfway through it, I'll open up the media library and click on The Soft Bulletin to really finish me off.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com