Saturday, October 10, 2009


Flaming Lips (Existential Pop)
LP: Embryonic (Warner Bros, 2009)

At this stage in their career Flaming Lips surely have little left to prove. Though not commercially successful, their off-the-wall psychedelic rock has justifiably earned them critical praise and The Soft Bulletin stands as perhaps the last truly great experimental pop record of the twentieth century.

It can't have been easy following that masterstroke. So after Bulletin we got the flawed genius of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) and the meandering cul-de-sac of At War With the Mystics (2008).

The band have heralded their new double album Embryonic as their White Album.  Like that fab landmark it's a great single LP padded with self-indulgent – though not necessarily unlistenable - filler. Like  Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots it's a half-realized concept album stuffed with free-form prog-rock jams and wig-out fantasies.

It's also packed with empathy, love of life and a philosophy which is decidedly 21st century in its naturalistic world view. A psychedelic jam session for hippies, brights and eco-warriors, if you will.

Best of all, Embryonic is mostly a head-spinning return to form, which will come as a mighty relief to those of us who were beginning to fear that the steady decline of the band's recorded output since the astral heights of Bulletin and the better bits of Yoshimi was irreversible.

Like life itself, where chaos and uncertainty periodically give way to moments of clarity,
Embryonic's random sense impressions somehow organize themselves into a compelling philosophy. This feeling is reflected track-by-track throughout an unevenly brilliant album.

In opener Convinced of the Hex the band throw caution to the wind and dump anything and everything into the mix. Nothing seems too far out to make the final cut, yet Hex sets out the central thesis of the album in no uncertain terms: "That's the difference between us / I believe in nothing / And you're convinced of the hex."

Just as the best science fiction tackles the big questions,
The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine grapples with the meaning of experience. A dead ringer for Yoshimi's sublime Are You a Hypnotist, the song presses home Wayne Coyne's obtuse secularism: "What does it mean/To dream what you dream / To believe what you've seen? / Why do we feel 
/ To try to find real / Underneath a machine?"

Then there's the eco-grunge of
See the Leaves, one of the record's key statements. Bereft of hope and love, the song's conflicted protagonist refuses to believe life has no end as she sees the natural world decomposing and re-emerging around her.

The title of
Embryonic reflects the infancy of humankind as tracks seem barely developed from their rudimentary beginnings. The magical faux-naivete of If - multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd invoking the ghost of Skip Spence – feels like an audio verite moment that went wonderfully right:

"People are evil, it's true
But on the other side, they can be gentle too

If they decide
But they don't always decide
We live on the impulses

Love is powerful
But not as powerful as evil."

On the other hand, inspired improvisation occasionally gives way to throwaway ditties like
Scorpio Sword, which sounds like Syd Barrett on a bad day. And half-realized jams like Powerless recall the Lips' origins as a spaced-out head band.

But this is the Flaming Lips, so hope is never far off. Post-Nietzschean popsters par excellence, the fearless freaks continue to ask the big questions, attempting to reconcile the unimaginable vastness of our inner and outer worlds with the miracle of existence.

Embryonic is filled with references to planets, nature, technology and philosophical riddles. Its theme will be familiar to Lips fans: the struggle of the modern human to negotiate the impasse between magic and math in order to overcome evil and approach a transcendent reality. Sagittarius Silver Announcement spookily exhumes the ghost of Ian Curtis to announce "We can be free / We can be like they are / We can be one with the silver machine."

In typical Wayne Coyne style, The Ego's Last Stand celebrates the mystery of a sunbeam, while Worm Mountain invokes the wonder of creation in its litany of frogs, bears and mountains.

Insisting that our cosmic solitude be seen as a source of wonder, Flaming Lips stand up to the challenge facing a post-religious world: to find meaning in a godless universe while avoiding the pitfalls of ennui and nihilism.

We can do this, they suggest, by immersing ourselves in a kind of serene eco-mysticism, good old-fashioned love and peace, and a healthy dose of shit-kicking rock 'n' roll. They're all part of the same thing, and if you've beheld the wonder of a flower, wept at a sunrise or heard a Flaming Lips record, I have a feeling you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Listen: See The Leaves

Watch: I Can Be a Frog


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to hear it!

Jaci said...


Anonymous said...

You are correct. The flips have been interested in these areas for so long now But a agree with your examination.

Prof said...

I came here from Flaming lips web page. REALLY interesting take on the album which is as you said excellent.