Wednesday, December 9, 2009
After downloading and listening to the Flaming Lips' latest album, Embryonic, I have decided that the Flaming Lips are crazy. Not crazy in the usual drugged-up-boozed-out-rock-band way, or the Syd Barrett/Brian Wilson “No, I mean actually diagnosed as insane” way. The Flaming Lips are crazy because unlike nearly every other popular recording group, they don't seem to care whether anyone likes them.
Clarification: a lot of people do like them a lot. In fact, Embryonic debuted at number eight on the Billboard Top 100, so they did sell a lot of records, but on the other hand: holy shit, this album does not sound like something that should be on the same list with Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, and Barbara Streisand, who were all in the Top 10 with the Flaming Lips that week. Weird synthesizer buzzes and clicks obscure drum-and-bass grooves, parts of the album sound like they were recorded by and for machines, and there's that extended two-note guitar solo during “Powerless” that's practically an anti-guitar solo. This is not a radio-friendly or fan-friendly album. It is, however, friendly enough to people uncool enough to still be taking psychedelic drugs in this day and age. Coincidentally (or not), Wayne Coyne's lyrics sound like the kind of insights one has when coming down from an 18-hour acid trip: “I wish I could go back/back in time/but no one ever really can/go back in time.” What? Whoa, man, whoa. We're traveling in time, but, only in one direction.
Embryonic isn't my favorite Lips album, and parts of it are hard to listen to, but I appreciate that a modern rock band is willing to make my ears hurt. The Lips could have recorded versions of their 1999 mostly-undisputed masterpiece The Soft Bulletin over and over again, but like time, man, they're constantly moving forward.
Most bands try to find a sound that fits them and mostly stick to it with small amounts of tweaking over the years. This is true even in the case of “experimental” bands: was Sonic Youth's last album a different from the one that preceded it? And as awesome as Radiohead's In Rainbows was, wasn't it a lot like OK Computer, which they recorded last decade? Some of these bands seem to be performing the same experiment over and over again, and getting the same results. Whether you like or dislike or feel completely neutral towards the Lips, you have to admit that they're at least willing to try new things, even if those things alienate their audience or are utterly incomprehensible. (See: Zaireeka.)
And it should be mentioned, finally, that these guys are getting old. They've been making music since the mid-80s and they've hit that age where most artists are content to play their hits in exchange for sexual relationships with inappropriately young groupies. Thankfully, the Lips never had any hits, except for that song about jelly and not using it. I suppose when you aren't successful doing something one way, it doesn't hurt to try it another way—then again, the Lips don't seem like they could stay in one place musically or artistically for very long no matter how rich they get. As their kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamlined live show indicates, they're fully willing to do almost anything—drop confetti from the ceiling, prance around in animal costumes, roll around the audience in a giant plastic ball—just for the hell of it, or to see if people will dig it. “What the hell, why not?” seems to be their motto a lot of the time, and that's not such a bad motto for any artist in any medium.
Further reading: this cool profile on Wayne Coyne.