By Mark Guarino
Although the band’s birth year was 1983, The Flaming Lips the band became The Flaming Lips the experience in 1999. That’s when the band perfected a live show that would transfer them from small rock clubs to the grand stages of Bonnaroo, Coachella and the MTV Video Awards.
How does an art punk band from Oklahoma City get to the exalted position of headlining rock festivals, enjoying platinum sales and gracing magazine covers? Much of it has to do with the spectacle the Lips conjured up in the past seven years. Roadies in bunny suits, wall-sized video projections, fake blood, inflatable balls and confetti cannons have been signature ingredients for the best rock n’ roll party since the extravaganzas of the 1970s prog rock era. But unlike Pink Floyd or Yes, the Lips are in it for the fun. What other band can else can create such a mind-blowing experience? Their music bubbles with big ideas, but in performance, those become secondary to the sight of grown men in furry animal suits and disco balls. Try to erase it from your brain next time you see them live. You won’t.
Every party, however, has its curfew. For a band whose career seems to be about constant evolving, The Flaming Lips have not figured out a way to take their new mass popularity into the next phase. “At War With the Mystics” (Warner Bros.), the band’s newest album in stores this week, has that fatigued feeling, the same one you feel in the 11th hour of a party, where all the best stories have been told, the finest wine drunk and somebody’s waiting for someone else to leave first. Now here’s the lingering, an album of mostly reconstituted ideas and sounds that, had they come in the mid-1990s, this album would indeed sound like quite a loopy head trip. Problem is, it arrives on the heels of “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.) and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (Warner Bros.), two far better albums that delivered some of the most original and spacey pop music of the last few decades. “Mystics” is their stepchild, an album that feels like a junkheap of ideas and studio nonsense that doesn’t result in any interesting songs.
“Mystics” touches on familiar themes — the fragility of life, the importance of love, the inevitability of death and, of course, the mystery of the cosmos. Stars, space and our connection to the beyond are, like, seriously freaky stuff to singer and frontman Wayne Coyne. Which explains why so much of “Mystics” seems specifically geared to listeners lost on acid trips. “Vein of Stars” is a dreamy ballad, adrift with splashy synthesizers, acoustic guitar and piano. It is much easier to take than the rest of the space travel here. Which includes “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung,” supposedly the vocal debut of guitarist-keyboardist Steven Drozd except who could tell? His vocals are heavily layered and submerged in studio gunk, it would have more use as a soundtrack to documentary on black holes screening at an IMAX theatre near you. The same goes for “The Wizard Turns On …,” an instrumental jam that is mostly irreverent studio noise.
A relatively new theme here is the anti-war stance of some songs. “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” the album’s kick-off track, poses open-ended questions — “if you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich/would you do it?” — against handclaps, shaky harmonies and off-kilter rhythms that can’t help but charm. But while earnest lyrics seemed to suit Coyne’s trembling falsetto and surreal environment in the past, on “Free Radicals,” his wordplay is, in a word, awful. “You think you’re radical/but you’re not so radical/in fact, you’re fanatical,” he sings, in a song about the abuses of power that abuses an arsenal of squiggle and blips as well as dirty and funky guitar riff.
Overload is this album’s sorest spot. The studio aura of previous albums opened up profound new worlds. Here, everything sounds chucked in and shaken. “Haven’t Got a Clue” is a mess, full of Beach Boys-styled harmony breaks, the clinking of chandeliers, endless squeaks and squiggles and, less you think they were getting too professional, the sound of someone choking the phlegm out of his throat. Did The Muppets not get credited here? On songs like this, the songwriting is non-existent, with the hire wire studio act hung on very loose thread.
By their very nature and evidenced by the many phases in their career, The Flaming Lips can’t help but come off as endearing in whatever they do. The sheer adventuresome spirit of this band is contagious, not just in their live performance, but even in their half-hearted failures. “The W.A.N.D.” is a welcome throwback to their heavier guitar days of albums like “Clouds Taste Metallic” (Warner Bros.). With its fuzz guitar lead, it is a protest anthem that suits its deep wall of sound. It is one of the rare moments on “Mystics” where the band seems to have cleared its head and remembered how the music it once made served the song much more than it did the sound