Friday, October 16, 2009

Album Review: "Embryonic" by the Flaming Lips

MUAHHHHHH (give it a kiss)

So yes, once again I am delaying my next requested review, which I will take care of next week. If this upsets or surprises you, I don't care because there is a new Flaming Lips album out and if I don't review it soon I am going to drive myself insane!

In all honesty, I have a lot of trouble reviewing records by bands that are very important to me; so many thoughts and emotions bubble to the surface and I want to get them all in my review, but I never do. As such, I never feel that I've said enough and in the end I am not satisfied. So, in that regard, it doesn't get much worse than reviewing Embryonic - not just a new record by the Flaming Lips, a band I consider one of my long-time personal favorites, but one that is seventy minutes long and is easily one of the densest and most complex records they've ever released.

In other words, there is no way I am going to be happy with this review. There are so many things that I am going to forget to say. So I might as well just go with the flow.

I won't bore you with my extensively personal experiences with the Flaming Lips' music. I'll save that for another time. Anybody who knows me well, however, knows that I have been a big fan for a while. And while - not unlike another favorite band of mine, XTC - I have barely ever written about them in this blog, they are written into its very DNA: their 2006 record At War With The Mystics was the first record I ever reviewed in this thing a good three and a half years ago. And it is funny, considering how enthusiastic I am in that review about an album that, in retrospect, did not thrill me - and one that I didn't listen to all that much following its release. Chalk it up to being a younger man in the midst of a year-long rush of euphoric Flaming Lips fandom, I guess, but even back then my reservations about the album - which would become more explicit the more I listened to it - would pop up more than once, like in my summary of "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song":

"My problem here - it's the Flaming Lips trying to sound weird, which they really don't need to do. You're already fucking weird, Wayne. You know it!! You don't need throw random arcade noises and "funny" stuff like that in a song like this to make it sound weird. You couldn't be normal if you tried. But still, it's a cool song that doesn't quite represent the rest of the album."

I was being polite here, because I did not want to admit that I was not satisfied with a Flaming Lips song. Until "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", I felt that the Flaming Lips could do me no wrong, and I wanted to maintain that excitement. But for a moment there, I think I hit the nail on the head: The Flaming Lips, all of the sudden, were trying way too hard to sound weird. And while I stand by that statement, in retrospect I feel the problem ran even deeper than that: worse than weirdness, the Lips were trying to sound cutesy, bubbly, or that dreaded descriptor: quirky. It was indie-quirk pandering, to put it bluntly, and even now it bugs me. It bugged me then, too, but I didn't really know how to put it into words. With Mystics, it felt as if the Flaming Lips - a band known for taking risks and defying audience expectations with each new album - were pandering to a group of people who viewed the Flaming Lips as cutesy, uplifting bunnysuit-wearing happymen who wrote songs for Spongebob Squarepants movie soundtracks. It did not make me happy. (Nothing against Spongebob, but y'know.)

At War With The Mystics did bother me, but - and it's obvious from that review - I still liked it a lot. Because, well, it's not that bad of an album! The whole "we are the crazy quirky Flaming Lips and welcome to our sunshine-and-balloons factory" attitude definitely kills some of the songs' impact ("Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "Free Radicals" being the obvious examples), but the songs that cash in on the Lips' trademark beauty are typically wonderful: "Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," "Vein of Stars," "Sound of Failure," etc. But the one song that still stands out to me - and to a lot of people, I think - is "Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung," an echo-laden bass-driven prog epic that is still one of the most exciting tracks they've ever recorded. That song, unlike everything else on Mystics, sounded like the Lips pushing themselves into something new and great, and as I said at the time: "If the Lips ever did a straight-up prog-rock album in the style of this track I have no doubt it would be fucking awesome."

And so. Now we have Embryonic. I could get all prophetic and congratulate my 18-year-old self for accurately predicting what the next Flaming Lips release would sound like, but that would not be right because none of Embryonic's eighteen tracks sound a whit like "Pompeii." To be honest, in terms of attitude and structure, Embryonic has no obvious forebear in anything the Flaming Lips have released previously, which I think is giving people a lot of trouble. Most Embryonic reviews I've read have people attempting to compare it to some other album they've done, or - more frequently - touting it as a "back to basics" album, returning to the reckless spirit of pre-Soft Bulletin releases like Telepathic Surgery or Priest Driven Ambulance. This confuses me, because let me tell you, Embryonic sounds nothing like their older stuff. Their 80's records were more psychedelic and fractured, to be sure, but even their darkest and noisiest moments were always leavened with pretty acoustic guitar ballads and a goofy sense of humor (why else would Priest Driven Ambulance end with a sincere, noisy cover of "What A Wonderful World"?). If the Flaming Lips wanted to record a "back to basics" album, they would have ditched the widescreen studio production, returned to the two-guitars-bass-and-drums setup of their early 90's work, and let the guitar noise rip. And that's not what they do on Embryonic.

So why are people so quick to compare Embryonic to those records? Well, you see, Embryonic is a dark record - much darker than the musical therapy of The Soft Bulletin, the brooding yet lovely Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and especially the in-your-face cutesiness of Mystics. So, of course, the most obvious conclusion people can make is that Embryonic is a return to their pre-Soft Bulletin records, a knee-jerk reaction that simply isn't true. Embryonic is the darker than those albums too, and is just about the darkest record the Flaming Lips have ever released.

Now, I should clarify that statement (and I should also start talking about what Embryonic sounds like considering I've spent too many paragraphs talking about what it doesn't). The Flaming Lips, even in their most uplifting moments, have always had a dark undercurrent to their work - a recognition of mortality, the inevitability of life and death and whathaveyou. Clouds Taste Metallic, one of their happiest albums, featured a song called "Evil Will Prevail." Soft Bulletin, probably the most uplifting thing they could possibly record, ends with a song called "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate." Yoshimi's "Do You Realize??," the other most uplifting thing they could possibly record, has really fucking depressing lyrics (not to mention that it is followed up by the defeatist anthem "All We Have Is Now"). But these records, despite the aforementioned moments of depression, offered an answer to life's worries: "Hey man, it's okay! Life can be tough - real tough - but everybody's gotta go through it! We'll all go through it together, and we'll all be okay!"

Embryonic doesn't have these answers. It is not designed to give you a hug and make you feel OK - instead it buries you deep, deep down into the murk and never pulls you back up. The only song on here where Wayne Coyne sings like the Wayne Coyne we all know and love is "Evil," a song that could probably fit comfortably on Yoshimi with its warm electronics. But it's a trick, see - "Evil"' leads directly into "Aquarius Sabotage," which immediately attacks the listener with manic drums, screeching guitars and an unsettling bass line. "The Impulse," which might have been one of the prettiest songs on the album, is marred by Wayne's creepy vocoder-processed vocals. "I Can Be A Frog," which could have been a cutesy joke song on Mystics, features vintage horror-movie backing music and Karen O making a bunch of creepy animal noises. While Embryonic is just as lavishly produced as their last few albums, it exploits their sonic palette in a much darker way, making every potentially peaceful moment sound sinister, unsettling, and uncomfortable. There is no "Do You Realize??"-esque moment of release - it's all downhill.

And Embryonic's darkest tracks? Hoo-ee. "See The Leaves," with its overpowered drums, bendy bassline and unwelcoming Wayne Coyne vocals, has to be one of the darkest songs they've ever done. You remember Mystics' "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion"? With Wayne warning against those pessimistic folks who "see the sun go down, but don't see it rise"? Well, let's sample some lyrics from "See The Leaves": "See the leaves / They're dying again / See the moth / It's flying again / See the grass / It's dying again / See the sun / It's trying again." Well well. So much for optimism! The jerky psych-rock album opener "Convinced Of The Hex" continues this darker trend, as does the bass-driven tribal chanting of "Sagittarius Silver Announcement" (is that Wayne singing lead on that, by the way? If it is, Jesusss) and the formless murk of "Gemini Syringes," featuring echo-laden Wayne vocals and a monologue from German mathematician Thorsten Wormann on what I assume to be the nature of the universe. At times these songs can feel formless, murky, and incomprehensible, but they all manage to sound cohesive in the context of the album, which is no small feat.

I'll be honest - upon first listen, Embryonic was just so downtrodden and long that I did not manage to get all the way through it. To be fair, I was just streaming it casually off of, and it was like 3 in the morning, so the circumstances were not ideal. But it does show that Embryonic is an album that requires a few listens, 'cause there's a whole lot here to absorb, which might be a bit much if you're not a diehard fan. But when it comes right down to it - and forgive me for generalizing - Embryonic is just cool. It can be a little dark and draggy, yes, but it's all worth it for songs like the pulsating groover "Silver Trembling Hands," the epic power rock of "Worm Mountain" (featuring MGMT, apparently), or the remarkable album closer "Watching The Planets," one of their most apocalyptic songs to date. Considering that these guys are not getting any younger (or, in Wayne Coyne's case, pushing 50), it is great to hear them still pushing the boundaries of their music and trying new things, at the risk of alienating the mainstream audience they have built up over the past decade. Mystics had me worried that they were running out of ideas; Embryonic, thankfully, has proven me wrong.

In preparation for this review I have spent the last few weeks listening through every Flaming Lips album since 1986's Hear It Is (with the exception of Zaireeka, which I will get to soon I am sure). I was a nice reminder that I seriously love this band, and that Mystics is the only record they have put out that leaves a bad taste in my mouth - and even that one is pretty good. I am happy about Embryonic's critical success but I am a little upset that people are using it as an opportunity to diss on Bulletin and Yoshimi in the same breath as Mystics, which has happened in a few reviews I've read. Let's get this straight: The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots are wonderful albums that everybody liked upon their release, and for good reason. Embryonic is practically as good as they are but for completely different reasons. What I'm trying to say is, if you're going to diss on a recent Flaming Lips album, make it Mystics. That one actually deserves it.

One last thought before I finish this and never ever talk about the Flaming Lips again until their next album comes out - and maybe this will give you a better impression of what this album is like, considering that I have done a less than adequate job of describing these songs to you. I was a little worried before I heard Embryonic, 'cause you know, their last album was Mystics and I wasn't sure what it would sound like. And what worried me especially was the fact that there were guest artists on a Flaming Lips album! That ain't never happened before! I mean - two songs with Karen O? I half-expected some lame quirky duet between her and Wayne to clog up the proceedings here. But man - if you're going to have guest artists on an album, you gotta do it like Embryonic. Karen O's vocals just add a creepy texture to her songs rather than overpowering them, and MGMT's appearance on "Worm Mountain" just make it even more brutal. Hell, you can barely tell they're there, but they make the songs cooler!! It's a good album, guys. Check it out.

So that'll do it. Next week, I promise, will be a requested review - two albums in one, actually! So check that out. As for the Flaming Lips, I may end up doing a career-summary post for them sometime in the future, considering I just sat through all of their albums and have so so many thoughts about them. I'll probably do what I did for that Radiohead overview from like a year ago and just recommend a bunch of tracks from each album that I like. Sound good to you? Sounds good to me.

(Also a quick note: if you have just listened through Embryonic and are wondering out-loud to yourself "Jeez, where CAN these guys go from here??," the answer may surprise you.)

1 comment:

Marvin said...

Good review. I think I'm pretty much where you are in how I see the Lips albums except you seem to be more into the 80s albums than I am. I pretty much love everything Priest through Embryonic except for Mystics... and like you say - its' still pretty good... there's just something about it that's not quite right.