Bon Iver sings about robot dogs. Nick Cave does a wicked Tom Waits impression. Erykah Badu covers Roberta Flack... in space. Even with its flaws, it's hard to think of a more memorable disc released this year than Heady Fwends.
"I wouldn’t say we know a lot about music, but we know a lot about the way our audience listens to music, because they’re like us. So you know, when we want music to go on for an hour, we present it you as something you can handle for an hour. Because it’s hypnotic, and it’s not punishing, and it’s not disorienting, and it doesn’t require your full attention."
-- Wayne Coyne to PopMatters, 20 January 2012
"'Nowadays we don’t really need [the label] to give us money,' Coyne says. 'We just can say, 'We know how this shit works, and we are going to move ahead on this.' When we made that Neon Indian record that, I believe it was March  when that came out, we recorded it and in six days actually had a record in our hands. When I asked [Warner Brothers] how long it would take, they were like, 'Well, if you can get the music to us, we can get you maybe a demo, a master that you can listen to in six weeks,' and I can’t take six weeks. I just started to say, 'Well, I’m going to find somebody who can help me do it quicker and better and not so much bureaucracy.' And I didn’t know if it would be three weeks or if it would be four weeks. I tried to get it overnight. And so I found places that can do what we want them to do quicker. And they wanted that."
-- Wayne Coyne to PopMatters, 27 January 2012
"'cos I want my ass ... shit. One more time?"
-- Ke$ha, "2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)"
It's kind of great to hear the Flaming Lips truly not give a damn anymore.
Back in the late '90s, these Oklahoma-bred psych-rockers slowly built up an acid-drenched following with their absolutely oddball, out-there (yet-fully realized) psych-rock sound, releasing albums filled with in-joke weirdness and drug-addled insanity to a slowly swelling cult audience. Yet over time, Wayne Coyne's cryptic tales began finding their heart, and by the time 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic came out, fans knew that something was changing deep inside the band: their songs were getting warmer and sweeter, all without having to sacrifice their love of the bizarre. Then, of course, we had that glorious one-two punch of The Soft Bulletin (1999) and the awe-inspiring Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), and it was pretty much settled: the Flaming Lips had turned into one of the greatest bands working today.
Thank goodness they fucked up after that. Had they not, we may never have had the ramshackle joys of The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.
You see, after releasing two masterpieces in a row, even Coyne was wise enough to know that the impossibly high expectations couldn't be topped again. The lackluster At War with the Mystics came out in 2006, and while it wasn't an out-and-out failure by any means, it still traded in the band's knack for honest emotional heft for wry (and dated) pop-culture references, which -- while disappointing at its core -- managed to free the band up to do whatever they wanted after the fact. Reveling in this newfound freedom, the band put out a double-disc effort in 2009 called Embryonic that complete abandoned what had become the "traditional" Flaming Lips sound, taking all of the scrappy details of their early days (in-the-red drum breaks, armies of budget-brand keyboards, vocals drenched in blown-speaker fuzz) and marrying it to their modern-day songwriting chops, resulting in an album that was darker, grittier, and weirder than anything they did in the past decade. Then came their star-packed Dark Side of the Moon remake. Then a six-hour song contained inside a Gummi skull. Then a 24-hour song contained in an actual human skull. Then a bunch of oddball collaboration EPs from the likes of Neon Indian and Prefuse 73. And now, we are treated to The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.
Essentially a "best of" of the band's recent gamut of collaborations, Heady Fwends retains the fantastically beat-up textures of that made Embryonic so sonically fascinating, but while that album sometimes bordered on the serious, Heady Fwends is off-the-cuff fun. The opening salvo "2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)" mixes Timbaland-like vocal swoons, a shuffling handclap beat, and a single clipped guitar strum played ad infinitum to create what is essentially the flip-side to Prince's "1999": the world is ending, so let's get high. "So with the world ablaze / I'm in an acid haze" Ke$ha sings in her signature style (unabashed and wholly believable) before we're treated to a glorious synth breakdown and an blink-and-you'll-miss-it Biz Markie cameo. Is it nuts? Absolutely. Is it worthwhile? Even moreso.
While the band's list of collaborators is a virtual Who's Who of people making important music today, the album's strength comes not from the randomness of this hookups but instead just how uninhibited said partners in crime feel around Coyne, drummer Steven Drozd, and bassist Michael Ivins. Just listen to the wild Nick Cave joint "You, Man? Human???", where Cave comes on to you like a sexy carnival barker over a fuzzed-out bassline that is occasionally punctuated by bright, sparkling harps. If you wind up having flashbacks to Tom Waits' "Step Right Up" in both tone and spirit (Cave's opening: "Hey everybody, I'm doin' alright! / I'm drivin' around in the middle of the night / On a silver cloud / You can touch me if you want / It's obligatory! / It's allowed!"), then don't fret: you're not alone.
Heady Fwends ultimately works because unlike their recent full-lengths, there is no grand statement or deep meaning to be found underneath it all: each song works on its own beautifully twisted internal logic. While the absolutely gorgeous closer "I Don't Want You to Die" blatantly quotes the first three lines of John Lennon's "Imagine" within its first 60 seconds, the song slowly morphs from post-modern Beatles homage to a beautiful meditation on death that piles on wheezing robot voices, a Chris Martin swingby, and lonely piano chords to craft one of the most undeniably pretty songs the band has released since "Do You Realize??". Same goes for the dark, surprisingly understated Neon Indian feature "Is David Bowie Dying?", which very much sounds like the shadow inverse of Yoshimi, all echoed guitar chords and nighttime synths, accessible yet cryptic to the core (very much like its titular hero).
Yet as the album goes on, it becomes clear that there are very much two types of collaborations that populate this disc: ones that are truly, honestly collaborative and one-offs that assuredly sound like one-offs. Of these misfires, perhaps the most egregious is "Do It!", wherein Yoko Ono stops by to shout the phrase "Do it!" over an undercooked melody for over three minutes -- and that's it. Conversely, the hard psych of "The Supermoon Made Me Want to Pee [ft. Prefuse 73]" starts out at full throttle -- sounding like a lost 60s psych-rock attack song that was shoved through a trash compactor and then fired straight up into the sky -- but the track ultimately turns out to be all climax and no buildup, the key-drenched cool down proving to be just about the only redeemable aspect of such a fruited pairing. Edward Sharpe's big number, meanwhile, is hindered by frontman Alex Ebert's own barely-there, highly-disinterested vocal phrasing, turning what could have been an above-average cut into a relatively boring slog, the acoustic guitars slowly plugging away without much sense of purpose. Worst of all, there's Erykah Badu's epic 10-minute sci-fi riff on the Roberta Flack standard "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face", where her powerful voice is soaked in so many echo effects that the disjointed cool that everyone was going for instead comes off as distant and detached, proving once again that as much as the band wants to take things "out there", there are still limits as to how far you can truly go out while still maintaining any sort of relatable gravitas.
Fortunately, even these minor faults can't sink the deliciously gonzo marvel that is Heady Fwends as a whole. The fantastic Lightning Bolt square-off "I'm Working at NASA on Acid" features one radically different surprise after another, just as how the Lips' tune with up-and-comer New Fumes, "Girl, You're So Weird", slowly changes from minimal synth lament to mountainous siren-party -- and then back just as quickly. Additionally, it's hard not to love any album that features a haunting Bon Iver collaboration that contains the lyrics "We thought we were so smart / We thought we could outrun them / But they had robot dogs".
When you break it all down, the Flaming Lips seemed to have stopped giving a damn, and it's a wonderful thing to behold. They aren't interested in making hits, nor do they even seem to care much about recapturing the sound of their turn-of-the-millennium glory days. Instead, they just want to have fun, calling up their friends and their fascinations, collecting blood samples from them to pour into limited edition vinyl releases, and then going about making some weird-ass music together. It works more often then it doesn't, but when digested as a whole, it's hard to think of an album released this year that is as wall-to-wall memorable as The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, flaws and all.