|The Flaming Lips:
At War with the Mystics Label: Warner Bros.
How does one grade an album by the Flaming Lips? For over 20 years now they’ve prided themselves on making nigh-indefinable music that combines classic rock, power pop, 60s psychedelia and whatever else lead singer and creative force Wayne Coyne can grab a hold of. This is a band who’s biggest hit is about a girl that puts Vaseline on her toast, a group who once recorded a four-disc album that required the listener to play all four CDs at the same time, and performed a cover of Kylie Minogue’s dance-anthem “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” as an operatic ballad that sounded more like a suicide note than an international dance hit.
Probably the only thing strange than the Flaming Lips’ music is the fact that they’ve been even marginally successful with it. Sure, they’ve only had one hit (the previously mentioned “She Don’t Use Jelly”) but each album they release seems to increase their large cult following of otherwise normal people who you would never expect worship a band with a lead singer who likes to parade on people’s heads while encased in a giant plastic ball. The band hasn’t recorded an album that’s been anything less than amazing in over a decade, and even more amazing, each album they release seems to be better than the one before it. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was better than The Soft Bulletin, which in turn was an improvement over the insane four-disc Zaireeka, which itself was far better than Clouds Taste Metallic, the album that followed Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, which people considered at the time to be their masterpiece.
So At War with the Mystics has some pretty big-ass shoes to fill, and while it may be the first album by the Flaming Lips since 1986 that doesn’t improve on the one before it, that says more about the stunning revelation that was Yoshimi than anything else.
The album starts out with a psychedelic chorus chanting ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah” in the aptly titled “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” A not-so-thinly-veiled jab at the president (and anyone in power for that matter), its upbeat chorus and melodic Beach Boys-on-really good-LSD vocals hide some mean-spirited lyrics. The “yeah yeah yeah” chorus, despite their hyper-cheerful sound, are actually agreeing to some pretty awful stuff “If you could make everyone poor, just so you could be rich?” and “If you could take all the love without giving any back?” are just two of the dastardly ideas they totally get behind. They change to a deep, but still disturbingly upbeat, chant of “No no no” when asked to do good things, such as giving people money and knowledge.
The upbeat-attack continues with “Free Radicals” a song that attacks an unnamed individual who is acting as “a poor man’s Donald Trump” and who thinks he’s a radical but it really “just fanatical.” Some have assumed that this song is about Beck, who the Flaming Lips toured with in 2004. Coyne has denied this, but lyrics about prima donna behavior and an obsessive need for bodyguards don’t exactly help his case. Whomever the song is actually about, they’re really getting burned on one of the best songs on the album.
Slower jams follow, and while they are decent enough, they just don’t have the kick that the previous tracks have. “The Sound Of Failure” has a great chorus and finishes strong, but the verses just meander and are easily forgettable, something that Flaming Lips songs rarely are. “Vein of Stars” is a beautifully written song that muses the state of heaven and hell, but the music accompanying the brilliant lyrics are amazingly boring. And the incredibly titled “The Wizard Turns On … The Giant Silver Flashlight and Puts on His Werewolf Moccasins” is sadly just an uneventful instrumental jam that becomes far too annoying far too quickly.
Thankfully, songs like “Mr. Ambulance Driver” and “W.A.N.D. (Will Always Negates Defeat)” make up for these slight missteps. “Haven’t Got a Clue” sounds like classic Flaming Lips (if there is such a thing), combining beautiful vocal effects and acoustic guitar with random laser blast sounds and other oddball sci-fi noises.
While At War with the Mystics is not as engaging as Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, that fact should not be taken as an indicator that the Flaming Lips are starting to lose their touch.
~James B. Eldred