Album Reviews

Nell & The Flaming Lips – Where The Viaduct Looms

(Bella Union) UK release date: 26 November 2021

Nell & The Flaming Lips - Where The Viaduct Looms It’s fair to say that The Flaming Lips do things a little bit differently to most. Whether it be an album consisting of four separate CDs designed to be played simultaneously (1997’s Zaireeka), performing in a literal bubble during the Covid-19 pandemic, or recording an experimental psych-rock record with Miley Cyrus, the Oklahoma band do not stick to a predictable path.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise to anyone that their latest record is a collection of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds cover versions, with a 14-year-old girl from Leeds on lead vocals. The seed for Where The Viaduct Looms was sown when Nell Smith went to see The Flaming Lips in Calgary dressed as a parrot. Lead singer Wayne Coyne noticed her from the crowd, befriended her family, and has acted as a musical mentor to Smith over the last few years.

When discussing a collaboration, Coyne suggested to Smith that they perform some Nick Cave songs – an artist 50 years her senior who she’d never heard of before. It’s a concept that really shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Cave’s songs, usually so full of menace, mystique and melancholy, are given new light under Smith’s light, airy voice, and the fact that she was unfamiliar with the source material means that no tracks are treated with any over-reverence.

All the covers are pretty faithful to the originals, so there shouldn’t be too much outrage from any Cave purists. Girl In Amber still manages to sound impossibly sad and slightly eerie, and O Children builds steadily upwards in its intensity. Some of the covers even rival Cave’s versions for effectiveness – A Weeping Song and The Ship Song are both gorgeous renditions with Smith being perfectly backed by the Lips’ trademark woozy electronica.

The track selection will be familiar to any casual Cave fan, with two of his best known songs, Into My Arms and Red Right Hand both featuring. Wisely, Coyne has stayed away from Cave’s more menacing murder ballads (we can only imagine how unsettling Stagger Lee would be as sung by a teenager) – Into My Arms in particular seems to have a new dimension added to it, the stately beauty of the original being transformed into a twinkly, spacey ballad.

Some parts don’t quite work. Red Right Hand has taken on a new familiarity since being used as the theme tune to Peaky Blinders and has been covered by a multitude of artists in recent years, so its appearance on Where The Viaduct Looms doesn’t have the impact it should. No More Shall We Part isn’t that suitable for Smith’s voice, but the closing We Know Who You Are redeems matters: it makes for a suitably contemplative and unsettling end to the album.

Whether this is just a one-off or the start of more regular collaborations between Nell Smith and The Flaming Lips remains to be seen. It remains a fine showcase for a talented young singer though, and if this unlikely pairing were to team up again, it would be fascinating to hear her tackle some of her, or Coyne’s original songs.

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