The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips’ obsession with outer space has defined their releases over the last ten years. On their poppier records, it was a zero gravity playground where characters indulged in outlandish and whimsical behavior. For example, on 1999’s critically acclaimed The Soft Bulletin, the protagonists of “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” “lifted up the sun.” On 2002’s equally lighthearted Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, space is the backdrop for both the album’s cover and the title track’s cartoonish narrative. More recently, in their long-anticipated indie-sci-fi film Christmas on Mars (2008), the Lips began to explore the darker side of space travel. The film’s creepy soundtrack, Eraserhead-inspired visuals, and cast of suicidal or psychotic characters were a clear departure from the cheery world of their previous few records.
The band’s latest release, the 70-minute double-disk Embryonic, picks up where Christmas on Mars left off, venturing even further into the void. The result is a paranoid and compelling account of man’s vulnerability before the infinite. The Lips grapple with man’s never-ending quest to make sense of the cosmos: the astrological signs in several song titles (like “Sagittarius Silver Announcement” and “Gemini Syringes”) remind listeners of humans’ first attempts to find meaning in the stars. But, the album suggests, this quest is always doomed to fail: “watching the planets align” only reveals that “there ain’t no answer to find.” Instead of gaining enlightenment from the stars, the protagonists on Embryonic respond with terror when faced with the infinite. The basic message of Embryonic is simple: we are all powerless in the face of the void.
The album’s evocation of the emptiness of space is augmented by the near-disappearance of frontman Wayne Coyne’s voice from the album. Musically speaking, this is the greatest stylistic departure for the Lips on Embryonic. Throughout the long life of the band, Coyne’s voice has defined the Lips as much as his wild antics as frontman. His vocal style has changed over the years: his voice was raspy on their first albums, becoming higher and lighter as the nineties progressed. On Embryonic, however, it’s simply absent. It chants in a barely perceptible monotone or is blotted out by echoes that make it sound as if he’s singing from a thousand light-years away.
It’s no surprise that Coyne sings about “killing the ego”: with the minimization of his voice, his presence on the record is noticeably diminished. But Coyne’s withdrawal into the far reaches of the cosmos seems to free the band musically. The Lips have long been acclaimed for bringing together psychedelia and punk rock, but Embryonic now adds jazz to the mix. In May, Coyne told Entertainment Weekly that this record is partly inspired by Bitches-Brew-era Miles Davis. (Incidentally, he also said that his performance ritual of dumping fake blood on himself mid-song is inspired by a photo of Davis bleeding after being beaten by police, a fact which tells you more about Coyne than it does about Embryonic.) Although Davis’ music might seem an unlikely influence for a crew of candy-colored punks, the Lips successfully digest it. The best proof is in the last tracks of the first disk, “Your Bats” and “Powerless.” On “Your Bats,” soulful brass is allowed to undermine the vocals at critical points of the verses, creating a deliciously unsettling effect. And the aimless but tense guitar work on “Powerless”, evoking more Davis’ wonderfully weird On The Corner Sessions than Bitches Brew, conjures up a familiar frantic energy. Embryonic has been bashed for abusing the freedom to be freeform, and it’s true that a couple of the songs, like the forgettable “The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine,” are repetitive. But overall, the jazz elements lend a freshness to the album’s sound that make the occasional misstep worthwhile.
Even as it pushes the Lips’ sound forward into uncharted regions, Embryonic is also a nostalgic look back. The album’s noisiness, darkness, and paranoia recall their earliest releases from the eighties and early nineties. Sometimes the lyrics make the parallels explicit. The epic final track of Embryonic, “Watching the Planets,” actually quotes “Shine On Sweet Jesus” from 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance. (“Watchin’ the planets shine” becomes “watchin’ the planets align.”) And remember the line “So embryonic it’s all right” from “Moth in the Incubator”? It’s not unlikely that it’s the source of this album’s title. All this self-referentiality is probably defensive; fans need to be reminded of the Lips’ stronger albums after a release as mediocre as 2006’s At War With The Mystics. But one also gets the sense that the band is nudging you to acknowledge how far they’ve come. The early band was, in Coyne’s own words, “amateur but loud.” Sonically, those first couple of albums have none of the breathing space that opens up on Embryonic. The Lips’ decision to incorporate elements from their roots pays off by showcasing the maturity of Embryonic’s more nuanced sound.
Although ‘maturity’ is a weird word to apply to a band whose live show includes enormous plastic bubbles and men in gorilla suits, it’s appropriate here. Embryonic carries the band’s whole twenty-six years of history without being weighed down by it. Of course, it should be no surprise that The Flaming Lips pull this off: after a musical lifetime spent outside the stratosphere, weightlessness must become second nature.
Powerless from Embryonic:
Watching the Planets from Embryonic:
Nathalie Lagerfeld is director of a Writing Center at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago.