30 years ago the world was a very different place. The brinks matt robbery took place at Heathrow Airport, wearing a seat-belt became law, cabbage patch dolls were all the rage, and Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. The charts were filled with Phil Collins, The Police and Michael Jackson.
Somewhere in Oklahoma, The Flaming Lips formed. As with lots of bands who spend that amount of time together, there’s always a chance that they will become a bloated caricature of themselves, obsessed by self-importance and resorting to (almost always) either formulaic re-runs of whatever made them popular, or slightly embarrassing and wholly unsuitable attempts to keep up with current trends. But The Flaming Lips aren’t usually that sort of band, with their space-psych leanings. But how would album number 14 stand up in 2013? well…..
1. Look…the sun is rising
The album starts with this sort of metallic sound, which opens out into a true synth-rock assault, pumped up Four Tet sort of opening, complete with shuddering bassline. Wayne Coyne’s vocal appears through the mist and this stabbing guitar takes the track over. Despite its psychedelic leanings, what transpires from this is that The Flaming Lips are still capable of writing great pop songs, and wrapping them up in something much more interesting. As the song ends, this post punk guitar and cold electronic sounds accompanies Coyne’s unashamedly space rock vocal to close, and segue into….
2. Be Free, A way
The undercurrent of this song is like a heart beat, racing, almost uncontrollably along, while the vocal and harmonies continues on a serene way over the top. Added to this analogue sounding synths caress the melody forwards, cajoling it into the listeners psyche. What is also becoming clear (and continues to throughout the rest of the record) is that this is a more introspective, almost downcast Flaming Lips. Certainly the lyrics have an ambiguous sadness about them ‘The Sun shines now / but we can’t see / It’s light, lights now / We live the same’, sings Coyne, almost like he’s abandoning hope.
3. Try to explain
A wash of electronic sounds preceeds quite an uplifting song (melodically speaking) with voice sounding synths much in evidence. It proceeds, sounding almost like a segue section, but the repeated melodic verse eventually engages.
4. You Lust
Chief Flaming Lips songwriter Steven Drozd says this song was one where he used a variety of modes all together, saying that playing them together makes the song sound ‘fucked up and sinister’. Certainly there’s elements of drone and patterns repeat almost ad finitum swirling around again and again, intoxicating you. As the track develops so sounds and scales merge and swirl and take what feels like little transmission errors, charming vignettes of sound that come out of nowhere, especially to close. Altogether its difficult to pin down, as expected with The Flaming Lips in general you might say. Fucked up and sinister maybe?
5. The Terror
The title track of the album, and one of the strongest tracks on the album. Its simple repeating underlay seems slightly uneasy, surrounded as it is by angelic synth sounds, and Drozd and Coyne singing a very high melody, almost as if they are looking down, warning those below of the impending terror of the title, with alien interference in the way of keyboards slowly overtaking.
6. You are alone
You are alone is a mix of sounds, fighting over each other to be heard, while a falsetto vocal gives You are alone an otherworldly feel. It sounds at once messy, even mystifying and is only brought some form by the buzzy bass sound that comes in. It’s strange, and it’s difficult to decide whether it’s strange good, or strange silly, and I quite like that.
7. Butterfly, how long it takes to die
On much more of a square-footing is Butterfly, how long it takes to die. Again slightly solemn, and the returning slashy guitar sound gives it some menace, along with these extreme keyboard sounds. Strip that away, and it see’s The Flaming Lips at their best – writing songs that stick in your mind and bathing them in a psychedelic wash. Once again the end see’s at first what appears to be a whole new song (or certainly new feel) bolted on, but in actual fact on repeated listens it actually completes the song.
8. Turning Violent
This beautiful oscillating bass, with these little droplets and scrapes of keyboard sound open Turning Violent. Although Coyne sings of the turning violent (a drug induced violence perhaps) he does so serenely, before these shocks of sound and drums propel the track forward into something that does have some malice behind it.
9. Always there, in our hearts
The last track of the album, seems to take elements of all the other tracks stir them up and let them loose. The angelic serene vocals, the wash of keyboard sound, spacey, psychedelic, tuneful, with the driving drums and ripping guitar sound that seems to bring the track back to earth, stop it from flying away.
The Flaming Lips, in some ways, have delivered an album that rests on their laurels. Luckily their laurels consist of, generally, the unexpected so the album itself sounds fresh and, often, captivating. It’s good to know that, even 30 years into their existence to quote their last song, The Flaming Lips are always there, in our hearts.