Coyne, Drozd and Fridmann return with the next psychedelic episode.
There was something so ultimate about The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, emphasised by its release in the last year of the 20th Century, you expected it to close with this paraphrase of Jean-Luc Godard: “End – End of Music.” Although its predecessor, 1997’s quadrophrenic experiment Zaireeka, proposed new directions, TSB was the culmination; a compression of pop’s best ideas into 12 mini-epics of nuance and bombast. The acclaim it won in the critics’ polls and for their live forays in 2000 gave further credence to the idea that this was as far as the Lips, if not rock per se, could go. After this, one suspected, being embraced by a large audience following 15 years on the margins as a cult horrorshow with just the Butthole Surfers for company would cause a loss of nerve.
And yet, miraculously, they did it again in 2002 with Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, another record magnificently poised between gorgeous melody and garish electro-noise, between their old life on the fringes and their new status as the mainstream’s weirdo cause celebre. It was their second consecutive brilliant state of the universe address on mortality and dread, transience and transcendence, but surely now, with a million sales and celebrity fans from Jack White to Juliette Lewis, overexposure and their new media friendliness would rob them of their edge. Besides, when you’ve created two records so monumental in terms of production and lyrical content, what do you do for an encore?
Advance word on At War With The Mystics sent alarm bells ringing. There was talk from frontman Wayne Coyne of a return to raw power and doing-it-live, of a retreat from studio artifice towards a more organic and conventional rock attack that could be recreated on the world’s stages. Seduced by success, The Flaming Lips would, it seemed, spend their dotage pandering to young crowds as rock’s token mad uncles.
Then there was the heroin effect. That scene in the Fearless Freaks DVD in which multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd prepared to shoot up showed what a dead end he, and the band, could find themselves down. Narcotic oblivion had destroyed his sense of purpose. Worse, some implied, was that Drozd’s genius was fuelled by smack, and if he did clean up, he’d lose his touch. Either way, a third classic album was looking unlikely.
Then again, from a group who more convincingly than any other convey wonder and joy – and with a Disneyish flourish, no less – a happy ending was inevitable. At War With The Mystics is another extraordinary collection from this late-peaking band. Recorded throughout 2005 with Dave Fridmann at the controls, the swooning/shocking duality of the Lips’ concerts, the pink bunnies and gore-fetishism, is once more reflected in the music, which veers from shattering FX to celestial sonics just as the lyrics jerk between metaphysical despair and juvenile glee.
“Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”, the opener, is acid bubblegum that subverts as it affirms. The first single, it’s going to be a pan-generational smash, in spite or because of the dumb know-thyself lyric and call-and-response chorus. The music is dense with detail: there’s an air of abundance here as Fridmann and Co fill every space with sci-fi sounds and micro-melodies, speaker-panning whooshes and digital splutters. “Free Radicals”, a dig at fundamentalists and Donald Trump, pivots around a daft Coyne falsetto and Michael Ivins’ cosmic slop of a bassline: this is funk as envisioned by Frank Zappa and Hanna Barbera.
After the last two albums’ titular obsession with conflict, on this loose concept the Lips assault Bush and his bombing cronies. “The W.A.N.D.” (a recent internet-only single), including the cry, “We got the power now, motherfuckers!”, is hi-tech grunge, like Sabbath produced by Pharrell. On “Haven’t Got A Clue” (“Every time you state your case/The more I want to punch your face”) the subject of Coyne’s surreal vitriol is probably Dubya, although saying At War With The Mystics is about Iraq is like describing Sgt Pepper’s as anti-Vietnam. Well, it was and it wasn’t.
More than any polemic, The Flaming Lips encourage resistance through rapture. Their not inconsiderable presence stems from the beauty of their, yes, Cosmic American Music. “The Sound Of Failure/It’s Dark… Is It Always Dark??” followed by “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” and “Vein Of Stars” forms a symphonic soul sequence as madly exquisite as psychedelic Philly, from the Bacharach-ish chord changes to the acoustic-deliquescing-into-electric guitars that sound like Ernie Isley on Mars. Only the Lips could hymn, as they do on “Cosmic Autumn Rebellion”, the twitter of birds on a late-summer’s day. Why? Because they’ve been there, done that, got the blood-soaked T-shirt. On “The Sound Of Failure”, Coyne, happy to be sad, sings, “Don’t tell Britney, don’t tell Gwen”, and, even though it’s a critique of the girl teenpop aesthetic, it’s thrilling to hear these former pyromaniacs and rank outsiders referencing an MTV world that’s as much theirs as it is The Strokes’ or la Spears’.
Suddenly, like some rampantly eclectic Playlist, At War… goes prog, Hari-Kiri for some bands, but not these brainiacs with the common touch. “The Wizard Turns On…” brings to mind a manic mid-’70s Herbie Hancock space-jazz Moog instrumental. When “It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big, I Am So Small… Do I Stand A Chance?” switches from handclaps and robot clatter to heavenly sighs, it’s like discovering an alien life-form that communicates via ecstatic harmonies. “Mr Ambulance Driver” is sublime AOR, its appearance on the soundtrack to The Wedding Crashers in the same year they provided the theme tune to Spongebob & Squarepants proving the Lips can do silly and solemn with aplomb. Saving the best till (second) last, “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung”, recalling Pink Floyd’s “One Of These Days”, features Drozd’s first lead vocal and waves of crashing synths – even non-fans are blown away by this one. Finally, “Goin’ On”, the quiet after the storm, is Rhodes-embellished, Rundgrenesque white gospel.
Maybe we doubted them because Coyne is no mock-recluse feigning intensity of vision. The Lips debunk notions of authenticity – it’s never clear who does what in that studio of theirs in Fredonia, New York State, although Coyne appears to be the Bowie figure, busy conjuring while Ivins, Drozd and Fridmann, his Fripp, Eno and Visconti, realise his grand schemes. But make no mistake, the Lips have done it: three astonishing albums in a row. This marks the first occasion since the ‘Berlin trilogy’ that an artist has climaxed with albums 10, 11 and 12 of their career. It’s official! The Flaming Lips have outstripped Lodger. Now all they’ve got to do is make the next one better than Scary Monsters…
By Paul Lester