Give the Flaming Lips credit for this; after thirty years in business, at the height of their commercial stature on a major label, they’re not afraid to keep it weird.
During my twenty years as a fan (I can point to the moment of conversion, in June of 1993, when they showed up at Raji’s to play a surprise show the very day after I’d heard an advance copy of Satellite Heart and decided I needed to see them live), I have experienced periods of both ecstasy and ennui. They’ve been consistently good live, if sometimes predictable, but going back to 1997’s Zaireeka, they’ve shown a willingness to over-reach to the point of losing me. The idea of requiring the listener to do a sync play with four different CD players is loony and fun but in real life, I never listened to it, so all that effort was lost on me. Today you could make a stereo mix in Garageband if you wanted to, but, who’s got that kind of time? (If you have four record players, though, feel free to invest in the 4-LP box set next week on Record Store Day, strictly limited edition of course.)
This tendency has been most problematic in their prolific recent past. Both the double-length Embryonic and their Heady Fwends set of collaborations left me mostly cold, with scattered moments of excitement buried in a mass of tuneless wandering. I didn’t even bother listening to their six-hour and twenty-four hour pieces of music, because who’s got that kind of time, even though I kind of like the idea of it. That seems to sum it up: they’ve been running the risk the last few years of becoming a band that’s easier to like in theory than in practice.
But even when I’ve lost patience with them, I’ve never lost hope, because it’s always seemed if they could stick around long enough, there was still potential for something good to come from that freewheeling spirit. That potential is realized in The Terror, an album in which they take their implicit weirdness to new heights and come up on the other side of wacky as … deadly serious.
They really have found a new way to sound, and the result is their most startling and successful release since The Soft Bulletin. Like Pet Sounds or Tonight’s The Night, it’s one of those albums you won’t want to pop on every time you want to hear some music, but which you will be grateful for when you find yourself in one of those moods at four in the morning. It’s heavy, and it’s meant to be.
Rolling Stone tells us this week that its recording documents a period in which singer-guitarist Wayne Coyne separated from his wife, and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd battled a relapse of his narcotics addiction. It’s also reported that Drozd has been clean for a year now, and Coyne sounds like he’s doing okay. That’s a relief, because while I’m glad we have this album, I wouldn’t want its creators to have to live there forever.
Only four of the nine songs feature what you might call a drum beat, and one of those, the epic centerpiece “You Lust”, only has military snare patterns for a few of its thirteen minutes, the rest of the track punctuated by what sounds like the hissing of an aerosol can. If the general effect sometimes reminds one of the long instrumental stretches on Animals and Wish You Were Here, the Lips offer no rocking-out payoff equivalent to “Sheep” or “Have A Cigar” at the end of all that tension – just more tension. A more apt comparison might be the Residents’ Eskimo, where the icy soundscapes go on forever without ever threatening to rock out. The minimization of guitars isn’t particularly new for them, but the embrace of electronic textures now feels organic rather than experimental, as if all that screwing around finally paid off and they’ve found an authentic voice.
Like those Floyd and Residents albums mentioned above, this album has a lot of patience, and requires some from the listener. It’s in no rush to get where it’s going, and content to remain stuck in a spot. While Embryonic was said to be created on the premise that they could better stretch their ideas out on a double set, The Terror makes better use of space and time in its 54-minutes. “You Lust” is essentially a ten minute drone, periodically interrupted by a single chord change, followed by a three minute hypnotic fadeout straight of Fripp and Eno. It’s the closest thing to “catchy” on the whole record, and it’s one of their masterpieces.
The rest of the tracks range from four to seven minutes each, and except for the relatively jaunty Yoshimi groove of “Butterfly, How Long it Takes To Die”, none sound like they could be on any other Lips album. There’s a pervading sense of impending doom, combined with a desperation to find beauty in it. “You’re not alone…. YOU ARE ALONE!” battle the voices in Coyne’s head, gradually overcome by the whir of analog synthesizers. The shift away from drums gives the songs a sense of suspended animation – time ticks away without meter or organization, contributing to the dreamlike state induced by the sound of old-fashioned electronica.
There are still some artists with three, four, five decade-long careers who are still producing good work worth checking out in the 2010s, Neil Young, Roky Erickson and Mission of Burma among them, but I can’t think of any that are still tinkering with the formula this radically, still attempting to make an album that sounds like nothing they ever did before, let alone succeeding. I hope that once-sympathetic folks who have grown impatient with their recent nutty antics will give this one a shot, because it feels like they have, once again, found the plot. As for those people who are going to discover this album knowing nothing about the Flaming Lips other than they are the zany rock and rollers on the Samsung commercial, well, I hope they have patience. If they do, they should find it amply rewarded in the way good rock albums used to, while sounding like nothing they’ve heard before.