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.