The Flaming Lips: “Embryonic”
Here’s the problem with being a freak: When you’re freakish in the same way for too long, it ceases to be daring, or even cool, and simply turns into schtick. I think that’s why a lot of Flaming Lips fans weren’t too crazy about At War with the Mystics, an album that was at best deemed a solid middle-rung Lips album, at worst phoned-in Lips-by-the-numbers. It’s not that the album wasn’t every bit as quirky and idiosyncratic as what we were used to hearing from Wayne Coyne and the gang; it’s that the album was exactly as quirky and idiosyncratic as everything they’d done for the last eight or ten years.
Honestly, I liked the album well enough: It was a good summation of their strengths, a synthesis of The Soft Bulletin‘s orchestral pop, Yoshimi‘s warm electronic embrace, and a bit of the frazzled rock of their early days. It also showed the infiltration of some exciting new influences– Prince, to name one– but not enough that it sounded anything at all like a bold new direction for a band famous for their audacity. So what does a band like the Flaming Lips do when their weirdness becomes old hat? They get weird in an entirely new way: Embryonic is their rebirth, an album that reconnects them to their muse, who in turn leads them deeper into outer space than we’ve ever heard them go.
And make no mistake: This thing is totally gone. The Flaming Lips got their start playing what’s lazily dubbed “alternative rock” and have spent the last decade or so carving out some strange new niches in pure pop music, but this recording is something else altogether. It’s acid jazz funneled through space rock, Alice Coltrane freak-outs clamoring next to surrealist punk and occasionally giving way to trippy childhood fantasias. And the critics are tripping, too, scrambling to come up with new ways to compare this album to krautrock or prog rock, but actually this music blows through all that and heads straight back to the good ol’ stuff; Embryonic isn’t as much Kraftwerk or Yes as it is the wild, utterly unhinged grandchild of electric fusion-era Miles Davis. Check these rhythms: Straight out of On the Corner.
Of course, they also inhabit the dark edges of punk rock, and there’s a renowned mathematician who reads formulas over the Lips’ unfettered thumping like spooky incantations, so really any attempts to tie this to a particular movement or stylistic touchstone will collapse fairly quickly What’s important is how the music lives up to its title– what we’re hearing is the sound of music in its formative stages. Maybe it’s a direct response to the last few Lips albums, where everything was fine-tuned and polished to a fine sheen, but that hardly matters: This is simply exhilarating, completely exciting music, period, and Coyne and the gang pour themselves into these songs with abandon. It’s the Flaming Lips at their most uninhibited.
And that’s the defining characteristic of Emryonic: Not the skittering, thunderous drumming of Steven Drozd or the Chick Corea keyboard tones, not the spacey mathematics or even the oddball animal sounds from Karen O. What defines this album as the most unabashedly, balls-to-the-wall Flaming Lips-y album the band has made is its sheer, loud, defiant, messy exuberance. Consider that the band set out to make a double album and stayed true to that goal, despite the fact that, at 70 minutes, this music could easily fit on a single CD: What’s important is that the group lives up to their Fearless Freaks nickname more here then ever before– including the four-disc simultaneous play of Zaireeka— with an album that’s totally out-there and wonderfully unconcerned with anything resembling mainstream or indie trends. It’s an album to get lost in, as is evident from the opening song, “Convinced of the Hex,” which gives the impression that the listener is coming in not just in the middle of a song already in progress, but in the middle of the album itself, as though this is one galactic burst of spontaneous creativity.
And though some of these songs are as loud and as edgy as anything The Flaming Lips have done– or anyone else in indie or alternative rock is doing in 2009, for that matter– the album’s depth comes from its oddball left turns. “Evil” is a shuffling ballad pitched somewhere between jazz and ambient, but the most deliriously fun and addicting tune on the album is the weirdo fairy tale “I Can be a Frog,” a back-and-forth duet between Coyne and Karen O that’s part lovestruck delirium, part psychedelic nursery rhyme.
That might all sound a little druggy– another connection critics are sure to make en masse— but it would be a grave error to write off the album as one long trip that you have to be high to make any sense out of. As many detours as the album takes, it’s utterly faithful to its own aesthetic and the band’s own philosophical constraints, and as unhinged and improvisational as it is, it’s also deeply musical. But even beyond that, Emryonic is a cohesive wonder, as anything with lyrics by Wayne Coyne would almost have to be. The guy has always had a philosophical, even metaphysical bent, which suits these spacey tunes perfectly well– somehow, oddball theorizing just sounds better offer acid beats and guitar feedback– but this is one of his most elliptical and exploratory sets. If Yoshimi‘s ruminations on mortality and fate had a reflective, autumnal feel, this one seems to stare unflinching into darkness; Coyne is concerned, as ever, with what exactly humanity is, and here he considers mankind within the scheme of cosmic good and evil, the latter dwelling in humanity’s heart. He sings about love in an age of machines and weighs the possibility of choice against the reality of wrongdoing. Love is a theme, too, but not in a romantic sense so much as an ontological one, Coyne wondering aloud if a capacity to love is what distinguishes us as people.
It’s that quality that makes Embryonic, in at least one sense, not so dissimilar to previous Flaming Lips albums: They’ve made good albums and so-so albums, but they’ve never made a slight album, and, more than anything they’ve yet done, Embryonic has the weight of a masterpiece. An album as a statement is an antiquated notion in the age of the iPod, but it’s those little quirks that make the Flaming Lips a band of utter fearlessness and devotion to their art, no matter how far-flung or out-there it may be. Their records are all the better for it, especially this one: The Flaming Lips chart a course for the farthest depths of inner and outer space, and the result is an album of ambition and audacity, sounding both like a summation and a new beginning.