Music has changed, the times have changed. The concept of a rock album is archaic, based on the old limits of LPs and CDs. We don’t process music like that anymore. Why can’t an album be six hours long or made up of separate tracks for the listener to mix? Why can’t a single song last for a whole day? The Flaming Lips were always gimmicky like that but they had the songs to warrant the weirdness. Now? Not as much. Call it self-indulgence, lack of inspiration, or too much lysergic D. The answer? Get Miley Cyrus in the band full time. But we’ll get to that.
Wayne Coyne is a moralist, which gives weight to the songs and the band. This is how he explains the world, good and evil, beauty and injustice. From “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain” – “all my smiles/getting in the hate generation’s way…you’re fucked if you do and fucked if you don’t.” How do you reconcile the wickedness of the world with your own vision of peace and empathy? Call it the Stoner’s Dilemma – is that on wikipedia yet? The Flaming Lips make druggy, escapist music that allows reality to encroach on the fantasy – as it should. They are every bit as relevant and even political as Pink Floyd, though Wayne is more idealistic and less caustic than Roger Waters. (Less caustic than Roger Waters actually covers most of the human race.)
This all becomes more apparent on 1997’s Zaireeka, a loose concept album of existential panic. “Okay I Admit That I Really Don’t Understand,” “Your Invisible Now,” “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet Of Despair” – the song titles tell the story. The pop song format is eschewed for more freeform structures – “India” is an epic acoustic anthem that combines military and sexual imagery. Zaireeka is a real trip. “The Big Ol’ Bug Is The New Baby Now” ends the album on a very Lipsian note of epiphany as Wayne’s dogs changing their favorite chew toy becomes a mystical chant to the heavens. Zaireeka was also infamously released on four separate discs, each meant to be played simultaneously. You’ll have to track down a fan mix or mix them yourself to listen normally. But it’s worth it.
1999’s The Soft Bulletin is their masterpiece, an album strong enough to hang with Peppers and Dark Sides of the universe. Along with producer and collaborator Dave Friedmann, the Lips add some perfectly off-kilter orchestration to this song cycle of death, disease, and drug addiction – “the softest bullet ever shot.” Not to say it’s a downer of an album – this is celebration music, of weirdness, weakness, and everything that makes us human. But what is the softest bullet? My take – which would fit right in with the Lips milieu – is that it’s about LSD. Camile Paglia has said that LSD destroyed the cosmic consciousness of the 60s, that the great minds of that era were already attuned to a spiritual awakening but were then detoured and ultimately voided by its effects. Or: perhaps the drug contributed to that awakening with a sort of Faustian bargain. That bargain is implicit in any kind of drug experimentation, and it’s woven into the fabric of The Soft Bulletin. This splits into deeper philosophical questions: “what is love? is it chemically derived?” Elsewhere: a band member gets bit by a spider and Superman fails to save the world. So The Soft Bulletin is about a lot of things, and it’s one of the finest rock albums ever recorded.
Then we begin the trip down the mountain, on to 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and 2006’s At War With The Mystics. On Yoshimi the concept is more obvious, the sound more overtly pop. At War is better though uneven, with some songwriting leaps interspersed with lazy filler. Still, these are fine albums with some real highlights: Yoshimi‘s “Are You A Hypnotist?” frames love as a drug or a sort of dark magic, while in At War‘s “The Sound Of Failure” a young girl rejects the pop idols forced upon her (“go tell Brittany/and go tell Gwen/she’s not trying to go against all them”). 2009’s double album Embryonic is equally cosmic and insular, lo-fi and sonically progressive. It’s a cool overall listen but it sounds to me almost too raw, like an album of worktapes or demos that hasn’t been fully formed.
The next phase of the Flaming Lips is marked by self-indulgence, experimentation, and a dearth of actual good songs. I’m no philistine – I can dig weirdness. And the 24-hour song “7 skies H3” from 2011 is not just a gimmick – it’s brilliant, both in concept and execution. There’s some excellent music buried in its hours of cycles, lots of funky hypnotic jamming. Just put it on and vibe with it, live with it. It’s an antidote for the way we skip through media, through news, through songs, through friends, through life like scrolling on a phone. Forget all that – just jump in anywhere on “7 skies” and really dig in to something, anything. Concentrate, meditate, procreate.
But as far as the other recent releases – 2013’s The Terror is one of the worst albums I’ve ever heard and 2017’s Oczy Mlody isn’t much better on the little chance I’ve given it. I’m sorry but an album of “keyboard soundscapes” to me just means “dicking around in the studio.” There have been a number of collaborative EP’s of this sort of sonic experimentation, just stray sounds and feedback and none of it amounting to very much. Every once in a while a great song (“I’m Working At NASA On Acid”) will pop up. But it’s just not worth it for me anymore. Vanity projects: an unnecessary full album cover of Dark Side Of The Moon with Henry Rollins just didn’t work, nor did another full album cover of Sgt Pepper. Why? Are the Flaming Lips just out of ideas? Or are they just following all the bad ones? Besides, other bands (MGMT, Animal Collective, Tame Impala) are doing their brand of psychedelic rock far better.
The only saving grace of recent Flaming Lips work is the collaborative Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. It’s a tremendous psych-pop album, with Miley absolutely diving in to the weirdness with both feet and no shirt. God bless her, she loves the Flaming Lips and it shows – “Fweaky” feels like a rewrite of “Love Yer Brain.” I have to think that “Karen Don’t Be Sad” is a Wayne Coyne song, bearing his hallmarks of simple empathy and morality. But Miley is a true Fearless Freak on this album, investing it with energy and vitality that the Flaming Lips have lacked for a long time.
I won’t say I’ve quit the Lips – their back catalog is still one of the best, most creative, most rewarding in rock music. But unless they bring in Miley as permanent lead or singer or, you know, write some actual songs, I’m tapping out.
Hear It Is ***
Oh My Gawd!! ****
Telepathic Surgery **1/2
In A Priest Driven Ambulence ***
Hit To Death In The Future Head **
Transmissions From The Satellite Heart ****1/2
Clouds Taste Metallic *****
The Soft Bulletin *****
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots ****
At War With The Mystics ****
The Terror 1/2*
Oczy Mlody *
Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz ****1/2