It’s easy to see The Terror, a tensed-up, teeth-grinding, inner-looking record, as a counterpoint to the arena-sized psychedelic explorations of the Flaming Lips’ last proper record, Embryonic. The better contrast, though, may come in remembering the cut-loose, often fascinating collaborations that comprised the Heady Fwends collection. This record, The Terror is – as has been often touted in the run up to its release – a more personal set about isolation and disconnection, even loneliness. These are more individual worries than what we saw in Embryonc, and far more serious material than we saw in Heady Fwends.
The thing about Heady Fwends wasn’t how all those collaborators stretched the Lips’ sound, but how Wayne Coyne brought them all into his sound, how his cult of personality and musical vision carried the day. This, though The Terror sounds far different, is where these two albums intersect. Despite all the isolation here, it is Coyne we find isolated and his personality – though often buried in thick swaths of sonic noise and negative space – is still big as life here. This isn’t Coyne floating above the crowd in a huge plastic ball, but this is still very much performance, albeit of a more personal nature.
So while this may be a more dissonant noise, it’s also a logical progression of their recent recorded output. Gone are the goofy genre jumps of At War With the Mystics and here are more serious eccentricities. Opener “Look … The Sun Is Rising” is awash in warm, swelling fuzz, but it’s the shadowy, angular synths that come in halfway through and throw the mix off along with those treble-light, skronky guitar cuts. (Those cuts come back several times in the record, slashing through the murk with all the speed and blunt force of a well-sharpened hatchet.) “Be Free, A Way” coats Coyne’s voice in a distant, ghostly echo, and the pulsing electronics take on a chilling steadiness, made bigger by the space around them.
“You Lust” is a sort of anti-tour-de-force in the middle here, more insistent and rhythmic than these other songs and, at 13 minutes, far larger. But it also highlights the dissonance between a simmering anger – that often presents itself as physical aggression – and the quiet, resigned way in which Coyne delivers that anger. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, a lot of nerve to fuck with me,” he groans here, while later on “Turning Violent”, Coyne insists he is, well, turning violent, but with all the assured muscle and high-register of Brian Wilson with laryngitis. These moments of anger contrast with moments that twist Coyne’s usual lyrical fascinations away from their universal bliss toward something more defeated. The flying saucer in “Look … The Sun Is Rising” feels distant, and only gets further away as the record moves on, while the titular creature in “Butterfly, It Takes a Long Time to Die” is mentioned landing more than flying, more than being free.
This all marks a pretty big shift away from the communal feeling and towards more personal panic. The Terror isn’t external, it’s in our heads. The seemingly bright closer “Always There, In Our Hearts” is actually talking about fear and imminent death. The music conveys these feelings in a kind of heady, overcast trance. The overall effect, the move through the album’s 54 minutes, is both jarring and often fascinating. It’s an album that drifts away from you only to pull you back in, not with a huge burst of noise but, rather, with the back and forth vocal harmonies of “You Are Alone”.
That song also notes the distinct connection between performance and honest emotion here. Coyne, for all the intimacy of the record, has not become Wayne Coyne the man, nor should he. On “You Are Alone”, there’s a sort of angel and devil on each shoulder, one (Coyne) keening to convince the head that it’s not alone, while lower voices (the band) contradict that hope at every turn. It’s not only a fantasy trope, a well-understood one, but it’s the most like a musical this album gets. So it turns out the emotions here are real, but conveyed through a deeply (and cleverly) contrived performance.
This is not to deride the idea of performance here. Performance and persona are constructions, but necessary ones and not inherently false. For all his hard-scrabble truth, Townes Van Zandt was a well-built persona, maybe had to be to live in the world for the time he did. Here, Coyne transforms his persona, and the band follows suit, breaking down and punching holes in the explorations they’ve dug into over the past few years.
What is interesting, though, is that focus on the head, on the struggle with our own thoughts, especially post-crisis. That the Lips might investigate this kind of potential self-destruction, this particular tension, is a bold move for a band who would rather imagine fighting robots or bleeding sparks or small amounts of stuff that weigh, well, a ton. But if the band succeeds on these other plains, creating camaraderie with an audience through their sound, here the density of layers and Coyne’s decidedly muted vocals are often distancing. We’re left to observe isolation without rooting down into the blood and bone of it. We have an arresting sound, one that keeps our attention but never quite envelops us. It’s still prone to self-indulgence – see the lengthy, trudging ambience that closes “You Lust” or even, to a lesser extent “Try to Explain” – which pushes at the effectiveness of the pathos here. In the end, the performance approximates more than it embodies. It’s an accurate, if sometimes cool, depiction of the personal tensions at work here. We can see it, even hear pain in the inflections here (and there are small moments that do leave the head and aim at the chest), but we never feel it as much as we could. Maybe it’s more like Coyne in that ball than we thought, actually. Near the crowd, travelling over it, held up by it, but still apart, other, presenting a kind of openness and grandeur that is both beautiful and too inscrutable for its own good.