Even before The Flaming Lips’ first truly brilliant album, In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1990), musical mastermind Steven Drozd and lyrical archaeologist Wayne Coyne had vacillated between many styles and had undergone many stages of development. In the ’80s they were edgy, groovy, mind-bending rave-ups who were dissonantly focused on sonic experimentation. In the early ’90s Coyne became further obsessed with religion and an ongoing quest for metaphysical enlightenment. Later, in the mid-’90s came the period of surreal vignettes delivered with a childlike luster; and with the last two albums (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) the theme seemed to be gentler, lushly symphonic masterpieces mining a more congruent and deeper questioning of dogma and life. Now that we’ve briefly noted the sordid musical history of the Lips faster than Mario Andretti on a kilo of amphetamines, you’re probably wondering what the new Flaming Lips album, At War with the Mystics, is like. But before I give you a not so objective, inside characterization of the album, let me first present you with a beneficial disclaimer:
The easiest way to dislike Mystics is to go in expecting Yoshimi II. Let’s get something straight. The Lips are what they are, and the best way to enjoy them is to be open minded and willing to succumb to their magically majestic vision.
From the opening amalgamation of yelping yeahs and strange noises that pass like blips on a radar, one understands that Mystics is going to be yet another shift in musical direction for the Lips. But before you can muse on their newfound style for long, a sudden distorted and forceful garage guitar line that comes pulsing forward enraptures you. Then the handclaps ensue, and all over the top of this comes coursing an altered Coyne, whose voice is so deep it seems unrecognizable at first. But the melody and hooks overtake you and you become lost in the massive wall of sound that seems like something Phil Spector might have dreamt up while on a very strange mushroom trip. The first U.K. single, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” is surreal, spacey, catchy and it rocks unbelievably hard when everything kicks in around the four-minute mark. This is The Flaming Lips functioning at their zenith.
No longer hiding behind surreal vignettes about Jesus, zoo animals and outer space, Coyne pours his heart and soul into each one of these tracks, poignantly exploring love, loss, politics and the fate of all mankind. The music is amazingly accessible because it never sacrifices pop-craft in the name of radical experimentation; though to be sure, Mystics has much more experimentation and depth in its sonic tapestry that Yoshimi did. For some, the experimentation may be distracting or harsh, and it may be best to compare it to a Lithuanian hippie temptress with extremely long armpit hair: curiously attractive, but not without a number of aesthetic hurdles. However, unlike what some critics have suggested, at no point during the course of the record does the experimentation get “too heavy and bog down the melody”; rather, the Lips are cognizant enough to play with just enough twittering electronics that it gets absorbed into the heavenly sound more fully than a Brawny paper towel in a swimming pool full of whiskey.
Simply stated, Mystics is a rock epic. Yoshimi was subtle and full of AM-ready standouts, and The Soft Bulletin was a celestial pastiche of bliss and soul, but Mystics has so much humanity in its every crevice that it makes you dizzy listening to the complex, wondrously transcendent journey that floats between your ears (just check out the track “The Sound of Failure/It’s Dark – is it Always Dark?” for a perfect example). This may seem like uncritical championing if you haven’t listened to the album, but once you give it a genuine listen you’ll find that it is everything that I’ve characterized it as being. And while Mystics may not be the Lips’ most ambitious effort to date – Zaireeka (1997) was after all composed of four albums – it is their most successful effort in blending their penchant for surreal experimentation and swirling psychedelia with classic pop, and lush brilliance. And that’s what it is: brilliant.