At War With The Mystics Mystifies The Critics
Pyschedelic/Electro-Organic/Experimentalist/Indie-Popsters (and quite possibly, my favorite band), The Flaming Lips, released their newest sonic juggernaut on Tuesday to some decidedly mixed reviews. I'm not sure if this is one of those times when Indie Rock's capacity for backlash is sprouting its ugly head, or if this disc is genuinely confounding people, 'cuz despite the relatively anemic (for them) Metacritic numbers, this disc is pretty damn good. But let's get one thing out of the way first: this album is not comparative to the last two brilliant albums from the mischievious popsters from the great state of Oklahoma. At War With The Mystics is a step or two down the evolutionary ladder from its predecessors, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. It's just not as good. Period. End of sentence. And there's nothing wrong with that. It'd be nigh impossible to recreate another album's worth of the sonic majesties that that filled up those last two albums. And the thing is, this album doesn't attempt to fill its predecessor's shoes - those two were conceptual in form, this one's not. Oh, this is not a departure in form by any means. It's instantly recognizable as the progeny of The Flaming Lips when the first blast of music greets your ears. But whether by luck or design, there's no recurring conceptual themes, and there's a doggedly experimentalist bent to the proceedings, so the resulting songs can sometimes come off as sounding a bit scattershot, especially with some of the skronks and other electronic effects that feature prominent roles in a few songs. Even so, the Lips are still bringing to the table what they always bring: great melodies and pop hooks. Going back to their earliest days as fuzzy, psychedelic punkers, they always managed to marry elements of aural dissonance with memorable hooks. While At War With The Mystics has these moments of dissonance+hooks in spades, it's also lacking an editorial sword to slash through several moments of sonic overindulgence. The opening tune, "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" is a prime example of this. It's a song that overstays it's welcome and overplays its hand by running about a minute and a half longer than it should've. What would've been a pretty great 3 minute pop ditty (even with its with experimental leanings), meanders too long and loses steam by the song's end - and it's these moments of overindulgence that keep this album from reaching the next level. The next track, "Free Radicals" starts out great but suffers from being ultra-repetitive. The chorus is repeated ad nauseum and while it's annoyingly catchy, the subject matter's just plain dumb. Wayne's own words to describe the song:
I had a dream in which Devendra Banhart (the weird singer/songwriter) is pleading with a suicide bomber (who is about to go blow up something or somebody) to change his mind. And once he changes the deranged zealot's point of view, he (Devendra) immediately sympathizes with the frustration (mostly aimed at George W. Bush) that could make someone long for such exaggerated revenge... (Keep in mind that this is just a funny dream - these suicide bombers are clearly brainwashed religious fanaticals that are insane with their own agenda... they are beyond any pleads of reason and are not worthy of any sympathy.)
From here on out though, the album starts to find its groove and the essence of the Lips being themselves really shines through. The album gets mellower and darker from this point forward. While the requisite Lips' weirdness gets bandied about in fine form, there's nothing as stilted and as obvious as can be noticed in the first two tracks. So, what's it sound like? It sounds like this: hints of The Soft Bulletin and echoes of Yoshimi are mixed in with Bowie era moon-glam, while '70s style roller-disco boogie-oogie meets Pink Floyd for dinner over a bottle of wine as classic '70s instrumentals like "Frankenstein" play in the background... and so on. This is densely layered stuff that demands repeated listening, especially on headphones. It's a classic "grower" and an album that refuses to yield all its charm on the first listen. I fully expect to grade this up a notch or so by the end of the year, but time will ulimately tell.
As for all of the talk about this album being some sort of political statement, puh-lease... The few tidbits here that lean in a political direction are so skinny as to be anorexic. Yeah, there's a couple of barely there references to the political climate, but Steve Earle-style histrionics this ain't. Those reviewers crying "political statement" are apparently smoking something they shouldn't 'cuz this album's not gonna send the neocons into apoplectic fits over its political allegories. But enough about politics and the cracked actors who see a conspiracy of musical forfeiture every time they doff the foil, this is a damn good album regardless of whether it's viewed from the penumbra of previous works or as a stand-alone conceit. Look, once you get past the opening salvo, you see it for what it is - it's an album from the staggeringly wacked, cracked, and stacked brain of Wayne Coyne... which always means that the musical journey will be more important that the final destination - and so it is.
High marks - well worth picking up!
Tuneage presently turning: At War With The Mystics by The Flaming Lips