Music

The Flaming Lips: At War with the Mystics

Finally, the punk rockers are going into orbit. Again.


The Flaming Lips

At War with the Mystics

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2006-04-04
UK Release Date: 2006-04-03
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

This record's a big one for the Flaming Lips. Their last two albums, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots brought them more critical respect and public staying-power (at least in the mainstream indie world) than even the long-ago Top 40 "She Don't Use Jelly" could provide. One of the oddest acts on a major label, the Lips often seem able to unify their new fans and "their old stuff was better" people (sometimes with animal costumes and sock puppets). But it's been four years since we last heard from the group in a substantial format, and that's just the length of time to either produce a really outstanding album or to build up expectations that can't be met, with or without spiritual and pharmaceutical trips.

At War with the Mystics splits those two edges -- while it's not another masterpiece, it does surpass much of the group's previous work, which it sounds related to, but not similar to. The Lips stick with their strength, running pop songs through outer space weirdness, but they've made a sonic shift with this album by applying a special filter of Rollerdisco Gold to the orchestration and production.

You'll have to be willing to get through the first two tracks before deciding what you think of this album. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" is an absurd, fun number that's a great opener, but it has a mess of lyrics that even the switches between acoustic guitar/handclaps and synthetic "yeah yeah yeah" can't redeem. The Lips sound almost reactionary in their attempts to question not those in power so much as the critics of authority, but the ridiculousness surrounding their question ("What would you do with all your power?") makes answering moot, but feel free to make up answers as the guitars and synths go into spazz mode.

Second track "Free Radicals" is just a disaster. The guitar riff almost turns into something, but Coyne's vocal line, based on a dream involving Devendra Banhart and the terrorists, should never have penetrated into conscious thought. "You think you're radical / But you're not so radical / In fact, you're fanatical" makes for the year's worst chorus, even at this early stage, and the music, which wasn't quite there to start with, dies. But stick with the album -- really -- it gets better.

After those two numbers, the Lips find direction amid their cosmic musings. "The Sound of Failure / It's Dark ... Is It Always This Dark?" introduces the old skating groove while beginning to probe into an emotionality the first two tracks belie. The group uses a complex construction to build a sorrow-resistant resonance, making an unlikely match of flutes and electronics fill out an idiosyncratic and effective sound. From that point, the group builds momentum across three songs, peaking with the nervous experiment of "The Wizard Turns On..."

The album then reaches its highest peak. The pre-slash portion of "It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big, I Am So Small… Do I Stand a Chance?" surrounds a chippy little pop refrain with expressive studio effects, vocal chipmunkery (I made that word up, but it still beats "portentous"), and some electronic hints of psych-prog. The vocals run through several filters, distorting Coyne's voice until it reflects an existentialist struggling with the night outdoors. At that point, the song smoothly transitions to its second part. The Lips' metaphysical musings don't make for high philosophy (and you might be in trouble already if you're turning to them for guidance), but their music occasionally makes the reach unnecessary, as on this track, when the both senses of awe develop into a sublime wonder. And then into plucked acoustic strings.

At those moments, the Lips get to something outside their music, but they do well not to stay there. Too much stargazing leads to a vacuum; too much big question pondering leads to vacuity. The group grounds their next song with an ambulance siren, using it harmonically as well symbolically. They also bring the wonder of life to a mirrorballing death. In this world, death isn't death, at least not for everyone, and so we get "The W.A.N.D.", in which you can basically imagine the solutions to your problems. The percussion works in nicely with the synth hook, and the group maintains its high-quality and interesting production, but it's another number you don't want to listen to very closely, unless spacey empowerment's your bag.

So after four years containing indescribable adventures, how do you close your album? Fittingly, with "Goin' On", an ode to keeping on that should soundtrack the closing credits of The Real American Hero: The Movie. The combination of persistance and anxiety in this lyric brings the album to a formally satisfying close. There are no answers here, and while the questioning pursuit might lead to bizarre and manic results, it's never a meaningless pursuit. Likewise, the Flaming Lips have their share of misses on this album, but the structuring and re-examining of their vision remains fascinating.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam
Music

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.

Music

Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.

Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.