Dear Flaming Lips,
I love you guys. Your music changed my life. Or, maybe this is more accurate: I discovered your music when my life was changing and it became a kind of soundtrack for those wild years. It was both heady and silly and cathartic, and private too, because no one else I knew was listening to it, and while I seldom knew what the lyrics were really about, somehow they nevertheless seemed to reach down deep inside of me to pull something out, usually something heavy. Your music made me unaccountably happy during a time in my mid thirties when everything seemed really fucked up. I count “Clouds Taste Metallic,” “The Soft Bulletin,” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” among my favorite records of a decade, maybe of all time. So I thank you for that. And I have been loyal to the band ever since. On record store day I went out and bought the Heady Nuggs Volume 2 box set which contains all five of the records you recorded between 2006 and 2012, two of which I already possessed on compact disc. But I have had a dilemma, a difficulty, a trouble with everything you’ve released post “At War With The Mystics.” And I’m writing to you because I don’t quite understand why I don’t like the records post 2006 nearly as much as the earlier records; in fact, I’m not even sure I like them at all, and it’s been kind of freaking me out. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s you. Maybe you can help me figure it out.
Let’s pretend for a second that it’s you. You guys went from an engaging, fun, and intellectually challenging pop band into a band that does noisy mood music. The newest stuff (and I’m mostly talking about “Embryonic” and “The Terror”), is droning, often lacking distinguishable verses, bridges, choruses, the vocals are whispery or distorted, indecipherable without the lyric sheet, the music often punctuated by gratingly loud noises or repetitive loops that jar or bore the listener, and on “The Terror” in particular, the tunes are rhythmically minimal, often without drums. The lyrics and vocal performances that used to be spirited, buoyant, exuberant, sometimes dark but hopeful, are now just mostly dark, quiet, subdued. It’s almost as if you’ve had a songectomy. This is not the pop band I fell in love with in 2001. It’s as if you have deliberately jettisoned all the things that made great those three records I’ve listed above. It’s a pisser. It’s disappointing. Have you run out of ideas? Have you betrayed your fans? You’ve never been a great singer, Wayne, but at least you were out there loud and proud, which I loved. Have you given up on your lovely, limited, but always charming voice? Why all the whispering falsetto stuff? Why so sad?
Okay, devil’s advocate: maybe it’s me. I simply don’t understand what you’re doing. Or, you are demonstrating the highest artistic integrity by giving absolutely zero fucks about what anybody thinks and you are earnestly experimenting to discover something new. It’s about the art, after all, not about appeasing your fans. Your recent minimalist approach to songwriting is about preserving a core of what’s really important and jettisoning all the flotsam and jetsam of pop music. And, like me, you’re getting older. Your artistic ambitions are changing, morphing, sobering, reaching for something higher and nobler than the three and a half minute pop song. So part of why I don’t like what you’ve been doing is because I am nostalgic for that state I was in and that state you were in 17 years ago. That’s no longer a reality.
Fast-forward to January, 2017, a year after David Bowie’s death, and the month of a dark, dark moment in American history, the inauguration of the gigantic orange man-baby to the presidency. You do two things almost simultaneously. You release your cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and you release your first album of new songs since “The Terror.”
I have the new album, “Oczy Mlody,” right now in my hot little hands and I am about to spin it for the first time. In this dark hour, I am crossing my fingers for some kind of miracle. I know, that’s a lot of pressure and responsibility that you don’t really deserve, but I’m giving it to you anyway. You helped me through a difficult time in 2001 and I trust that you can do it again.
Notwithstanding the crazy 1997 experimentation of “Zaireeka,”the four records designed to be played simultaneously on separate players (which I have not had the pleasure of hearing BTW), if the last two albums could be categorized as your most difficult listening, then this record here, the super-strangely titled “Oczy Mlody,”comparatively, is the easiest. Easy listening Flaming Lips. On first spin it was immediately likable, relaxing, contemplative, dark, yes, but melodic; and this album, unlike the last two, contains much of that lovely, synthesizer orchestration that made the “Soft Bulletin” all the way through “At War with the Mystics” records so entrancing. And while there are no tunes on this new record that include the kind of ballistic drumming of “Race for the Prize” or “The Spiderbite Song,” there are drums here, or at least some drum programming, that help percolate the tunes in a way that most of the songs on “The Terror” do not percolate.
The lyrics are nuts, as usual, and that’s a bonus, but because I haven’t taken the time to read all the way through them, word for word, I can’t really say anything about the continuity that I sense is present and the story (I’ve read) these lyrics are supposed to tell. But on the second tune, Wayne, when you sing, “I tried to tell you, but I don’t know how,” I’m right back there feeling once again that what you’re singing is resonating in my life in a super specific and meaningful way. And “The Castle” is maybe one of the most beautiful and saddest love songs I’ve heard in many a moon. And “We a Family” makes me love Miley Cyrus in a way I never thought I could, and to be thankful for the effects of a brilliant pre-chorus. This tune is anthemic and gorgeous in almost the same way that “Do You Realize” was.
So fast-forward once again into February and I have listened to this new Lips record maybe a dozen times by now. The first thing I can say is that it holds up to repeated listening. I kind of forced myself to listen several times to both “Embryonic” and “The Terror,” but it kind of felt like a chore or an obligation, a duty, but this is a record that compels me, after a break of only a few days, to listen again. It’s not necessarily a return to old form, which it probably shouldn’t be, but it is a return to something recognizably and loveably The Flaming Lips. And I couldn’t be happier. And that’s it. My favorite Flaming Lips records have made me stupidly joyful in super dark times, and here I am again. So thank you, Lips. Keep doing what you’re doing.