The Flaming Lips have enjoyed a bizarre and deliriously unpredictable career path since forming in 1983. First came the drugged-out indie-scuzz era, nine years of obscurity halted by a Top 40 breakthrough fluke that landed the Oklahoma band on Beverly Hills 90210. From there, Zaireeka's "four discs played simultaneously" concept stunt foretold future adventures: namely, a string of three near-perfect gonzo-pop albums, with the latest, At War with the Mystics, out early next month. Try not to be alarmed when you don't immediately recognize its sound.
After all, this isn't the same Flaming Lips whose "She Don't Use Jelly" you lip-synched at the talent show in eighth grade, nor the band whose 1999 psychedelic shocker The Soft Bulletin soundtracked your tripping college years. This isn't even the Flaming Lips of four years ago on the tellingly titled Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Yeah, it's still the same guys who wrote those songs and made those albums, but then as now, they're dramatically changed and barely recognizable as their former selves. After 23 years, the Lips still sound like they're just getting started.
Except they're also aging, with a fan base that's aging too. Mystics is the work of a mature band with a boundless imagination and a devoted following, but one hyper-aware of its inevitable doom. Listening to the latest Lips, you're no longer navigating through an asteroid belt at breakneck speed, but now stuck on your own home planet, gazing at the cosmos while being pelted with gamma rays. One track name sums it up: "It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big, I Am So Small ... Do I Stand a Chance?" The bouncy, riff-laced "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" starts us off with a hint of early Lips whimsy, but lyrically, it hints not at youth, but tentative wisdom. As frontman Wayne Coyne croons delicately, With all your power, what would you do? Even after back-to-back masterpieces, he's less poised than the guy who once sang Every single molecule is right or The limits now were none.
The Lips' music has also continued to expand and explore -- while multitalented lynchpin Stephen Drozd's trademark drum blasts have been toned down, there's lots more of Coyne's lead guitar, plus distinct touches of jazz, piano, chirping birds, prog rock, handclaps, phasers, funk, and flute. But Coyne's lyrics, expressed in a lower, more restrained register, are fraught with frustration and uncertainty. Maybe there isn't a vein of stars calling out my name, he moans, adding to a steady stream of ruminations on success and death understandable for a guy in his mid-forties.
Soon everything around us will die/Only a fool believes that he is different from the birds in the sky, he declares on "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," a sad, resigned song until halfway through, when stellar fuzz and Yellow Brick Road melodies barge in to break up the sulkfest. But by the closer "Goin' On," he's back at it: Listen, you'll hear it/We're gettin' near it/I know I really fear it/But we pretend it's just another day. It's painful to hear him so mortality-obsessed just four years after Yoshimi's bunny suits and life-affirming ballads. A 2004 documentary on the band called them Fearless Freaks, but maybe these guys are human after all.
Now more than ever, the Flaming Lips' future is a murky, vague object -- something that won't take shape until it's well past us. Yet to the world's best, most restless, most fascinating alt-pop band, that's not so daunting. As Coyne concludes, Yes it's true, someday everything dies/We won't let that defeat us.
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