Ed: This is the second in a two-part review series investigating the art of the spontaneous-sounding album.
, I talked about jazz, a genre where spontaneity is integral to the music itself. And now for something completely different.
When I first heard of the Flaming Lips, I was living in Glasgow, blissfully ignorant of Soft Bulletins and bleeding sparks. I was on a mission to listen to Scottish music, and Avalanche Records at 34 Dundas Street was my ally. One day, on my ride home from work, I heard a funny song about pink robots on Radio2. The announcer said "And that was the Flaming Lips." Now, my logical leaps are not always the most well-founded. So as I stood in front of the record rack, gazing at a pink Flaming Lips album, I thought "Well, it's in a Scottish record store and is played on Scottish radio they must be from Scotland." Hmmm... How's that for some deduction?
Years later, I've learned a little more about the Flaming Lips. Fact one: They
are not from Scotland, but Oklahoma City. Fact two: They are one of the more
innovative bands on the planet especially in terms of performance. Fake
blood. Bunny suits. Boombox experiments. These guys are cracked out. Spontaneity
is central to their shows, as it were. Fact three: As time has worn on, their
recordings have grown more experimental. What began as quirky lyric explorations
with songs like "She Don't Use Jelly" back in 1993 evolved into something altogether
more atmospheric and space-age bubbly by the time Yoshimi Battles the Pink
hit the scene in 2002.
And so, when At War With the Mystics
was announced, I knew it would be a sonic adventure. How would the Lips build upon past successes? Would their sound change radically or continue to evolve?
What was hailed in advance press as a "guitar-rock album" comes out of the gates as such. Quickly, though, the eccentricities of the Flips exert themselves.
Take "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song." A high-strung vocal arrangement gives way to the thundering crunch of drums and fuzzed-out electric guitar. If that's not a vague enough description for you, imagine if the Lips were to provide musical accompaniment for a giant Cyclops clattering down a mountainside, cursing his blindness. Yes, it sounds something like that. Strange, then if we take this Homeric analogy a step further, the song becomes a fitting warning to all the would-be Odysseuses out there, posing the simple question: "What would you do with all your power?" It's one thing to be an armchair general and another entirely to be the general himself. The thesis here is that power can corrupt the best of intentions; even its subtle misuse can have disastrous ramifications.
(Ed: For what it's worth, the video is even odder at one point, it involves various cuts of meat being stapled to Lips singer/frontman Wayne Coyne, who is then chased through town by a werewolf.)
Next comes "Free Radicals," a song that has left many reviewers incensed. As always, they are glad to give their sober assessments: "This is absolute rubbish," they shout. Well, to tell you the truth, I find indignation hilarious. Anyone with ears can tell this song was meant to be humorous, from the castrati-like falsetto, to the slapdash guitar line, to the simplistic lyric repetition: "You think you're so radical. But you're not so radical. In fact, you're fanatical. Fanatical." The song even ends mid-breath, for crying out loud, as if to say "Look, this tirade could go on and on, but it will never cover any new ground, so we might as well stop now." Such acquiescent fatalism is really the beauty of "Free Radicals."
Speaking of covering new territory, At War With the Mystics
isn't necessarily ground-breaking. But that's never been a prerequisite for a good album. Musically, it's an amalgamated sound, drawing from a large swath of the Lips' back catalogue. "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," for example, is kin to several songs off of Yoshimi
: Bird sounds à la
"It's Summertime," a guitar solo recalling "Utopia Planitia," and lyrics similar to those on "Do You Realize??" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1." Compare, if you will, the old ("Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?" and "You won't let those robots defeat me") to the new ("Yes it's true that someday everything dies; we won't let that defeat us"). Even the album artwork (painted by Wayne) is something of a stylistic cross between the covers adorning Yoshimi
and The Soft Bulletin.
What makes At War With the Mystics
different is spontaneity and not spontaneity in a jazz sense. Listening to this album you get the feeling that absolutely anything
could happen as if it's taking final form only as it reverberates off your eardrums. Studio chatter is scattered throughout. Weird sounds appear in the midst of songs. For instance, near the beginning of "It Overtakes Me," someone can be heard to say "You can turn it up even a little bit more." It brings to mind the production value of a band like Broken Social Scene; to be sure, there are times when the Flips utilize a similarly dense, overdriven aesthetic. These smidgeons of found sound help instill a feeling of looseness, otherwise difficult to achieve, in a painstakingly constructed studio album.
So what have we learned about spontaneity? It can be an asset to albums. The element of surprise can have powerful effects on the listener. Just so, due to the nature of the recorded beast, everything new becomes old again; the unexpected becomes the routine. So, while spontaneity can help enliven first impressions, it is not the end-all for an album's success that
comes down to the simple factor known as musical quality. By either standard, At War With the Mystics
is pretty darn good.