There’s something rather surreal about the new album by The Flaming Lips being treated as one of Warner Bros’ big commercial bankers of the year. This was, remember, the band who once recorded Zaireeka, a four CD box set designed to be played simultaneously, and whose big commercial breakthrough was a concept album about a young Japanese girl fighting pink robots.
Yet Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots at last pushed Wayne Coyne and company into the big league, and At War With The Mystics thus comes with some level of expectation. With an almost parody-defying title, some truly ludicrous song titles and moments that walk a tightrope between utter brilliance and self-indulgent nonsense, it’s business as usual in The Flaming Lips world.
As was the case with Yoshimi, At War With The Mystics is filled with mini-symphonies, soundscapes that manage to sound different each time you listen to them, with all manner of sounds seemingly thrown in. It’s billed as a more political record than previous albums, but this is no raving polemic – any topical references are wrapped up inside lyrics that are so obtuse they make Michael Stipe‘s look clear.
From the outset, it’s clear that the Lips haven’t lost touch with their innate pop inner child. The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song takes some multi-tracked harmonies, handclaps and quirky guitar and keyboard riffs and wraps them up in a tune that stays just the right side of annoying. The more serious bent of the lyrics is reflected by lines such as “if you could make everybody poor, just so you could be rich, would you do it”, but the sheer exuberance of the melody means that this comes across more as a party song than anything else.
The stop-start, claustrophobic rhythms of Free Radicals begins with Coyne sounding almost exactly like Prince, while the laidback Mr Ambulance Driver is possibly the most commercial moment here – soulful, melancholy and oddly touching, it’s one of the best moments here. The gorgeous, floaty Vein Of Stars is another stand-out, a lush masterpiece that sees Coyne questioning “if there ain’t no heaven, maybe there ain’t no hell”. It’s marvellously uplifting.
Yet as always seems to be the case with The Flaming Lips, they can’t resist the urge to go all prog-rock on us, with mixed results. The Wizard Turns On… The Giant Silver Flashlight And Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins is as tiresome as the title suggests, being a rather inconsequential flute-led instrumental, while The Sound Of Failure would have been one of the best tracks on the album had they decided not to segue it into It’s Dark Is It Always This Dark, and be transformed into an overlong Yes-style epic.
Sometimes, the experimentation works – the stunning It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big…I Am So Small…Do I Stand A Chance starts as a funky, disco melody before becoming wistful and synth led and then finally turning all pastoral with a plucked acoustic guitar. Similarly, Pompeii am Götterdämmerung sets the controls for the heart of Pink Floyd and hits its target full on – it’s almost the best song that Messrs Gilmour and Waters never made.
Ultimately, if a Flaming Lips didn’t include a high degree of experimentation, you’d be disappointed. Yet when they keep things simple, such as the closing piano led Goin’ On, the results are magnificent. So, At War With The Mystics is another almost great album – but even a very good album from the Flaming Lips possesses more imagination and ambition than 90% of other bands’ efforts.