Never ones to shy away from visual spectacle, the latest studio album from the experimental psych-rock band the Flaming Lips has its origins in a multi-media art installation. Created by frontman Wayne Coyne and toured through the US earlier this year, the interactive installation allowed visitors to enter a huge metallic head, lay down within its cozy interior, and experience a kaleidoscopic light show of cascading LEDs, synchronized to accompanying music and narration. The installation’s audio has now been released as the Flaming Lips’ 15h studio album King’s Mouth, after a previous limited release for Record Store Day 2019.
The Flaming Lips are no strangers to experimentation; it has become their forte. Since gaining widespread critical and commercial success with their 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the band have embarked on numerous peculiar musical endeavours and novelty ideas – or gimmicks according to their detractors. Among these include releasing a host of covers (including a full album cover of The Dark Side of the Moon), an EP encased within a gummy skull, a 24-hour song (also encased within a skull, but a real human skull this time), and various collaborations with artists including Nick Cave, Kesha, Tame Impala, Yoko Ono and a longer affiliation with Miley Cyrus. Given their history in experimentation, the release of their first concept album in the form of King’s Mouth is surprising. One would have expected them to have already released a concept album by now.
Enlisting the soft narration of the Clash’s Mick Jones, the album tells the tragic but hopeful tale of a king who sacrificially saves his kingdom from destruction while granting his subjects an eternal glimpse of the wondrous heavens above. Exploring all of this, of course, through the hilariously cosmic imagery of a giant baby, outer space, and dipping severed heads into steel. The sheer creativity of the story is enough to absorb the listener and explores Coyne’s favourite themes of mortality, existentialist musings, and the persistence of life. Regardless of the story’s content, Jones’ mellow, almost polite, narration is charming and comforting, often reflecting the narration of a, slightly twisted, children’s audiobook in its tone and direction – inviting the listener to “Come on, climb inside!” the giant mouth of the dead king’s severed head. The band are evidently self-aware enough to embrace the comicality of the album’s narrative with the narration even containing a few jokes. “It wasn’t easy to find him giant baby toys,” Jones quips on “Giant Baby”.
Given its narrative emphasis, much of the album consists of meandering, cinematic passages that combine with punchy drums and glitchy synths to create a warm sense of drifting weightlessness. Tracks like “The Sparrow” and “Mouth of the King” produce a focussed and concise spacey landscape that, although low-energy, is acutely engaging. Where these cinematic tracks fail to hit the mark is down to their reliance on (an absent) visual spectacle. “Mother Universe”, consisting of cinematic risings and fallings set to the persistent beat of a drum machine, delivers little in the way of orchestral sounds that aren’t heard elsewhere on the album alongside more interesting accompaniment. “Funeral Parade”, a sequence of dramatic choral interactions, accurately carries the narrative of the album but offers little in the way of musical stimulation. Without the visual accompaniment of the kaleidoscopic light show they were intended to supplement, some tracks feel weak.
Amongst these floaty, spacey arrangements are more high-energy, rhythmically focussed songs. Standout tracks include “How Many Times”, with its plodding acoustic guitar and pitch-manipulated vocals, “All For the Life of the City”, an upbeat folky bop with a surprisingly appropriate narrative reprieve in the middle, and “Freedaloodum Beetle Dot”, one of the more directly appealing tracks of the album with a fidgety groove and driving bass line that, again, adeptly combines narration with high-energy instrumentation. Throughout, the vocal melodies stand out as poetic and fulfilling. There’s little that’s directly catchy about this album, but if anything sticks in your head, it will be the satisfying vocals and their endearingly bizarre lyrics.
The songs themselves are written to fit the purpose of the album’s narrative, portraying a particular event or emotion within the story, and are given little room to develop themselves. While this doesn’t mean the songs of King’s Mouth become monotonous – quite the opposite – they do perhaps miss their full potential. If it wasn’t for the restrictive narrative they conform to, tracks like “Funeral Parade” or “Electric Fire” could be more developmental in their structure. “Mouth of the King” develops from a plodding acoustic ballad into a beautiful eulogy but ultimately falls short through its ending. It merely fades into narration for the introduction of the next song, depriving the listener of that final climax.
While the album’s mellow tone makes it easy listening, there is a pervading sense of melancholy throughout. Captured most acutely in “The Sparrow” with its sombre strumming acoustic guitar and almost malevolent synthesised choirs, married with lyrical reflections on time lost and decisions made. Like many of Coyne’s lyrics, those on King’s Mouth are little on the nose: “And it made me understand / That life sometimes is sad.” But they are delivered with apparent sincerity and alongside such satisfying progressions that they take on an otherwise unmerited weight.
King’s Mouth couples spacey cinematic passages with driving rhythms to create a sombre and thoughtful musical whole. Although a novelty, its narrative is creative and adeptly integrated to provide a story that supplements, rather than detracts from, the music. The album suffers from the inclusion of hangovers from its past as a piece of musical accompaniment, but the addition of album filler is minor when the majority of the album is enjoyably engaging. Perhaps this is an occasion when the Flaming Lips should have looked to produce another experimental EP than an overstuffed LP.