At War With the Mystics – The Flaming Lips
Warner Brothers 49966
Great records always seem like concept albums, even when the artists that created them had no concept in mind other than to record great songs. Only time will tell whether or not the various phrases of adoration and reverence laid upon the Flaming Lips’ last two albums will endure the amorphous tastes of the music critic elite, but intended or not, the concepts underlying The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are undeniable. The albums’ thematic unity should come as no surprise: the Flaming Lips has always been as much an idea as a rock band, and with those two modern masterpieces, that idea reached its full realization.
Preliminary whisperings of a return to their acid punk beginnings left some doubt as to whether At War with the Mystics would do justice to the recently familiar incarnation of the Flaming Lips idea, but while the album as a whole lacks some of its predecessors’ cohesion, the concept is still there, if not as one great hour-long monolith, at least in the individual songs themselves. The initial reports are half-true: At War with the Mystics returns to the guitar-based freak punk of the Lips’ yesteryear, but it’s still got producer Dave Fridmann’s fingerprints all over it, even if he may have decided to put some of the songs back where he found them.
The opening guitar riff of the first single, “The W.A.N.D.,” fueled the fires of speculation and hints at Wayne Coyne’s less cryptic jabs at the current administration. The relatively benign threat of giant pink robots gives way to a still mysterious but less fantastical enemy at the gates, and Coyne is no longer content to let Yoshimi fight his battles for him, singing “We got the power now, motherfuckers / that’s where it belongs” while waving his magic stick. Album opener and UK single “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” points the finger inward, asking rhetorically “What we’d really do with all your power” over a feet-kicking 80s dance shuffle and enough yeahs, dos and ahs to meet the album’s quota right off the bat.
Guitars take on even more of the load on “Free Radicals,” a cheeky throwaway that questions the same hypocrisy, and “Haven’t Got a Clue” thinly veils its contempt for wolf-criers beneath an irresistible synthetic shuffle that excuses the ham-fisted lyrics. The band strums the album’s last chords on “Mr. Ambulance Driver,” abandoning venom for grief and mourning over acoustic melodies while sirens wail overhead, and burying the rest of the album beneath the rich sheen of layered vocals and echoing effects that pair with the distorted bass riff and hand claps of “It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big and I Am So SmallDo I Stand a Chance?”
“The Sound of Failure/It’s DarkIs It Always This Dark?” allays any fears of a permanent abandonment of the Lips’ recent formulas, doing justice to its title on a seven-minute orchestral pop bildungsroman in which a megaphone ushers a young girl towards a life outside the cookie-cutter teenage molds of Brittney and Gwen. The existential naturalism of “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” and “Vein of Stars” peers through yellowing leaves and long-dead stars into vast piano melodies and surveys the familiar cerebral territories of dying, death, heaven and hell.
If most of At War with the Mystics seems like a nostalgic and sometimes depressing romp through the Flaming Lips’ near and distant pasts, it also has moments when those divergent paths merge again and point toward the future. On “Pompeii Am Grderung” Coyne & Co. travel beyond themselves into post-Barrett space rock, blatantly but reverently ripping Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” while peering over the horizon to rediscovered roots, then taking one last break on a soft, simple piano ballad that finds little hope to ease the bitterness of this War but realizes that there’s no other choice but to keep “Goin’ On.”
While At War with the Mystics doesn’t have the artistic weight that’s come to be expected from the Flaming Lips, it’s still a good record at worst, and certainly a lot of fun despite its unfamiliar cynicism. The Lips’ undying optimism, though increasingly reserved, shines through the dark and bitter subject matter and claps its hands, shuffles its feet and sings along with the fading party even after the angelic choirs and echoing bass have quieted to a hesitant whisper that is more and more drowned out by the lo-fi rumblings of a war on television.