The Flaming Lips – Embryonic, 2009, Warner Brothers
Long-time weirdness proponents, the Flaming Lips, have delivered their best effort in ten years. They have paired this accomplishment with the feat of producing their most left-field, noncommercial album in longer than that. Embryonic, however, owes more to the Oklahoma band’s distant past than its recent trajectory.
After forming in the 1980s, the Lips hit paydirt in the early and mid-1990s, much on the strength of their quirky hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” This college-radio staple, however, was backed up by albums that inhabited fully-realized universes of skewed pop. Both Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, and its follow-up,Clouds Taste Metallic were bombastic, hook-laden affairs that were constructed as much from guitar feedback and noise as they were from chords and melody. The credit for much of this sound goes to their lead guitarist at the time, Ronald Jones.
After Jones’ departure from the band, a significant vacuum was created. After releasing the experimental Zaireeka (which required four separate stereo systems to be heard), the way forward for the band was crystallized with the release of The Soft Bulletin in 1999, a gargantuan album on which the guitar squall, which had once aspired to be lush and symphonic, was largely replaced by synthesized string sections, chiming guitars and twinkling pianos. The resulting sound was bold, psychedelic and seemingly infinite. The Lips had aptly demonstrated what a second act in American life looked like.
However, the problem lay in the fact that the band had already maxed out this sound. The following album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, sold well and was well-received, but yet was essentially a repackaging of Bulletin’s sound, albeit in a very attractive form. The next record, At War With the Mystics, found the creative well running dry. The band was resorting to simpler pop conventions, and applying lush production that was becoming ever more predictable. To make matters worse, the off-beat nature of Wayne Coyne’s lyrics focused instead on endless re-hashings of the theme “Life is short, and death is inevitable, so enjoy life.” This message grew more cloying each time it was trotted out.
Considering that the Flaming Lips could have set their course on auto-pilot, Embryonic is truly iconoclastic and remarkable. The lush production of previous albums exists here as well, but only to serve as a counterpoint to the mayhem between which it is usually bookended.
The overall sound of the album consists of oversaturated drums, fuzzed-out bass, squiggly guitar and electric piano, the latter of which is oddly reminiscent of late-60s Miles Davis. Wayne Coyne’s vocals are at times very prominent in the mix, but just as often take a back seat to the instruments. Perhaps most remarkable about the sound of Embryonic is its consistency. Even though it stands to reason that it is the product of many edits, the album retains a live-in-the-studio feel, as if someone just left a tape recorder to catch whatever happened.
Overall, the album takes the form, of some sort of interstellar broadcast, and the gigantic virtual soundstage on which the music sits only reinforces the idea of this music traveling a great distance to reach its listeners. This astral imagery is only bolstered by the high number of songs that reference the Zodiac in their titles, and by the disembodied voice of mathematician Thorsten Wormann, who muses aloud on several tracks.
The content of this space broadcast seems to center around the choices we make between good and evil. In a welcome departure from previous albums, the lyrics are vague, inviting any number of interpretations. The Zodiac references could point to themes of predestination, or perhaps not. Machines are referenced, as are many types of animals. There is talk of crushing one’s own ego, and the planetary alignment that might result. All of it may, in fact, add up to nothing, but the sheer joyride of weirdness is the true payoff here.
Embryonic’s seventy-plus minute program is best taken as a whole, but several songs stand out. “See the Leaves” starts with a pounding relentlessness, and ends with an unsettling minor-key understatement. “I Could be a Frog” features Karen O mimicking the sounds of an array of animals over the phone, while Wayne sings about some sort of super-girlfriend. “Worm Mountain” distorts almost every instrument in its path, achieving a destructive groove with the aid of members of MGMT before decaying into a lush soundscape. The album ends with “Watching the Planets,” in which a rising mantra brings many of the album’s themes together, all while the overdriven sound reaches a fever pitch and Karen O starts screaming. Its is as astounding and intense as it sounds.
The Flaming Lips could have stayed in a perpetual low orbit, riding on momentum and occasional adjustments. Instead, they have pointed their spaceship at a distant nebula, and will hopefully beam us another album as vast and strangely beautiful as a Hubble photograph, just as they have done with Embryonic. One thing is certain: mission control has not called for their reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere just yet.