Album: The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (Warner Bros)
The Lips are reborn – with freak-outs in place of songs
Sunday 11 October 2009
The intention going into Embryonic, says Wayne Coyne, was for the Flaming Lips to be "free from the discipline and focus... free to fail... free to lose ourselves".
By which he means that the songwriting process to which they had become accustomed (compose on Pro-Tools, add the sonic weirdness later) was abandoned in favour of "freak-out jams" and "psychic intuition". He's at pains to point out that the Oklahoma band's preceding trilogy of pop albums – The Soft Bulletin (1999), Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), At War with the Mystics (2006) – all contained "charged, spontaneous" moments.
This time around, the Lips (who have, along with our own Super Furry Animals, come to epitomise "psych-pop" in the past decade and a half) are leaning way over towards the left-hand side of that equation. Embryonic is the most out-and-out psychedelic thing they've done since the days when they were a cult concern rather than a commercial force. It's also a concept album which won't tell you what the concept is, unless under rigorous interrogation.
Over its 18 sprawling tracks (it's officially a "double", whatever that means nowadays) there's a recurring zodiac theme, with titles such as "Gemini Syringes" and "Sagittarius Silver Announcement", as well as many references to the red-in-tooth-and-claw forces of nature, and to erasing the ego. What it lacks is anything even vaguely resembling a song in the classic sense.
Opening with the off-kilter electro of "Convinced of the Hex", it moves through a couple of Floydish interludes before track four explodes into life with "Aquarius Sabotage", an argument between distortion and beauty. Throughout, you can hear they're having fun, but that doesn't mean it's fun to hear. It's preferable to listen to the Flaming Lips doing this than pretty much anyone else on earth, but oh for a song to sweep you off your feet.
For all his talk of "freedom", the Lips are paradoxically hindered by their approach on Embryonic, banished from the one thing at which they truly excel. Diverting, inventive, but ultimately unsatisfactory, it's like watching Usain Bolt running a three-legged egg-and-spoon race.
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