“That’s just what you do,” Coyne notes, surmising his overall do-anything philosophy. “You get into a state of mind, you obsess, and you push as hard as you can, and something else opens up in its wake. On the Dead Petz album, some of the songs automatically changed poppy because of Miley singing on them. It would be interesting to see if they seem poppy just because she’s on it, or is it just another side of The Flaming Lips?”
— Wayne Coyne to PopMatters, 21 January 2016
Every couple of years, the Flaming Lips remind you of the great band that they once were — and that’s if you’re lucky.
While few would ever doubt the iconic status of alien-pop classics like 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (whose influence can be felt all the way up to the WTF vocoder reimagining of “Do You Realize??” for a Transformers trailer), the celebrity-baiting and remarkably vapid sounds of 2006’s At War With the Mystics left some worried that Wayne Coyne, Steve Drozd, and Michael Ivins had fallen too far into their navel-gazing world of psychedelic wonderment, entertaining only themselves while leaving their listeners far behind. Surprisingly, fans found themselves experiencing this worry time and time again.
There’s no doubt that they redeemed themselves with the gritty, defiantly lo-fi Embryonic in 2009, but the give-and-take for some fans just became too much. For every Dark Side of the Moon cover album, there were extended jams contained in a Gummy fetus. For every collaborative Heady Fwends effort, there was an awful Beatles cover album. For every understated masterpiece like 2013’s The Terror or the too-great one-off “Peace Sword (Open Your Heart)”, there was working with Miley Cyrus on a two-disc stoner-noise session. Some fans just gave up, and even hardcore Coyne acolytes and Ronald Jones documentarians couldn’t blame them for leaving the fold. As time wore on, so did fans’ patience with the group’s uncontrolled, increasingly-shoddy experimental output, some writing them off as a lame joke and most insisting that it was Coyne who was telling it.
So, for Oczy Mlody, the band’s 14th full-length proper, the group continues mining the vein of the dark and serious synth work that defined so much of The Terror but here is given just a touch more acid in order to make the trip truly count. In fact, for all it’s nebulous moonlit key patterns and drum machines on display here, Oczy Mlody plays less a Flaming Lips album proper and more like the moody, downtrodden cousin of Coyne and Drozd’s Krautrock side project Electric Wurms. Melodies are loosely strung together, rendering the tracklist as something that’s almost arbitrary, as the thin programmed tappings that back “Do Glowy” gradually turns into “Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes” which then meanders into an introspective voice-and-guitar number that seems like it was designed to somehow impress Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and, for the most part, it succeeds.
What makes Oczy Mlody such a unique outlier in the ever-shifting Lipsography is that unlike virtually every full-length before it, Oczy breaks absolutely no new ground for the band. The guys opt instead to roll around in some of their more recent releases, performing all of it with a straight face even as Coyne’s lyrics seem custom-made to get a rise out of you in one way or another. “White trash rednecks, earthworms eat the ground / Legalize it — every drug right now / Are you with us are are you burnin’ out? / Kill your rock ‘n’ roll, mutherfuckin’ hip-hop sound” Coyne sneers on “How??”, while the lyric sheet for the surprisingly staid “The Castle” come off as a rejected script from the Adventure Time writer’s room. At one point in the group’s career, treating a girl’s brain as a spaceship would be endearing. Now? It’s just cloying and hollow.
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In fact, while Coyne is clearly aiming for profundity at times here, more often than not his lines lack the poetry and innocence that made the group’s run from A Priest Driven Ambulance to Yoshimi so utterly fascinating. During the string-laden “Galaxy I Sink”, built with a melodrama that makes you think it was intended for a Tarantino film, Coyne huffs his words, muffling his voice as he says “How can the stars really know me now / When I fear their light will burn me up?” There is no curiosity or tension here: it’s just blathering, Coyne hoping that he’ll stumble upon a couplet of significance instead of sitting down and truly crafting something of value. Even on “There Should Be Unicorns”, which features one of Oczy‘s most engaging, rolling melodies, Coyne aims for winking irony and ends up with word vomit, no matter how many dramatic vocal effects he layers over himself:
Yeah, there should be day glow strippers
Ones from the Amazon
Some edible butterflies
We put ketchup on
Some motorcycle stunts
That always crash
And if the police show up
We’ll bribe them into helping us steal the light of love
From the rainbow sluts that live next door
For many a year, it seemed that the Flaming Lips were in a unique agreement with Warner Bros., allowing them to release any damn thing that came to mind while still touring and collaborating with their favorite fucked up fwends. These days, Coyne has seemed to forgo quality control for releasing anything and everything the group does, diluting their legacy and scattering his trove of actually-good songs across a bevy of releases, making hunting for gems more of a chore than it ever was before. While The Terror sharply divided fans and Oczy Mlody fails to to anything notable or interesting, Mlody isn’t a bad album: just a forgettable, dismissable one.
That isn’t to say fans should still check out tracks like the thumping drama of “A Night While Wizard Hunting” or dismiss “Almost Home” for its melody lines shifting like tectonic plates. But when stacked up against the rest of the set’s unfocused numbers, Oczy Mlody feels less like the group’s 14th grand artistic statement and more like a minor footnote to a once-great band’s recent output. While fans may be disappointed now, maybe it’s worth holding out hope for just a year or so longer as the guys always seem to be able to surprise us when we least expect it.