It’s difficult to pinpoint when the Flaming Lips, a band that has been around for over twenty years, went from cult heroes to worldwide phenomenon. They’ve survived the one hit wonder tag, various band member defections, and three decades of changing styles, making it a wonder that Warner Brothers has stuck with them for as long as they have. In fact, most people still categorize their music as indie despite being on a major for fourteen years. Lately, however, the Wayne Coyne led experimental machine has been building up so much steam that you have to figure it will red line and top out soon. One thing is for sure, that time is not now. At War with the Mystics, the band’s twelfth album, will end up to be yet more fuel to the fire that has made the Flaming Lips one of the most talked about bands in recent history. Whether it’s their water-cooler worthy live performances or their studio wizardry, the Lips have made themselves world superstars. One British magazine went as far as to say that the Flaming Lips were the best band in America. After listening to At War with the Mystics, I’m bound to agree.
Mystics is a natural progression from the groundbreaking The Soft Bulletin and the fan favorite Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The lyrics center on social and political issues, but again, it is the music that matters most when listening to the Lips. Coyne, Ivins, Drozd, and let’s not forget boardmaster Dave Fridmann, continue to make the best headphone albums ever made. New elements can be heard with every listen making Lips albums repeatedly enjoyable. While not exactly making Brian Wilson their bitch, they are at least putting themselves in the same league. Their last three albums have been so inventive, fresh and original that a friend remarked that he found the Lips’ music to be `almost sourceless.’ While the same can’t exactly be said for Mystics, with various imprints all over the CD, leaving critics to pore over it like they’re on C.S.I., the album does build on not only their own history, but the history of rock music as a whole.
I would say that everything just seems to fall in place for the Flaming Lips, but with three years separating Bulletin and Yoshimi, and four years separating that from Mystics, it’s hard not to chalk it all up to time, deliberation and hard work. Even the covers of the last three albums are newsworthy pieces of art; this one being a Jim Steranko meets Jackson Pollock at Disneyland’s Fantasmic show extravaganza. The album itself does not disappoint in the slightest as we are reintroduced to the Lips with “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” the album’s third single (believe it or not), a tune with so many different parts it almost seems schizophrenic. Starting with Wilson-esque harmonized vocals, and then going into acoustic guitar riffs before ultimately veering into an electronic cyclone, the song’s simple lyrics ask us what we would do with power. The rest of the song intimates what some people in power have already done, making it more of a comparative moral question than a dreamy, staring-at-the-clouds one. “Free Radicals,” another political song, helps us imagine what it would be like if Prince fronted Led Zeppelin. What’s great about the political aspects of the songs of Mystics is that they don’t hit us over the head as say, Rage Against the Machine or Jello Biafra’s would (no offense to them intended). Instead, the Lips never lose the idea that they are a pop band performing political material, not a political band performing pop music.
“The Sound of Failure” is one of the prettiest songs the Lips have ever penned; a kind of rollerskating disco meets Burt Bacharach song that disses Britney and Gwen. The second half of the song, separated by a slash and dubbed “It’s Dark…Is It Always This Dark?” is more meditative in nature, making a nice segue to the new age nature sounds meets Radiohead covering Floyd, “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion.” The song really takes off at about two and a half minutes in with fuzzy electric guitar and electronic fills. “Vein of Stars” is probably the closest thing to songs from Bulletin and has a slight nod to Bowie as he sings “above our heads.” I keep expecting to hear backup singers echo, “over our heads.” One of the best songs on the album comes with the Lips’ patented long title, “The Wizard Turns On…The Giant Silver Flashlight and Puts on His Werewolf Moccasins.” This instrumental space rock jam is another Floyd like journey, but with stops at the Portishead station along the way.
“It Overtakes Me / The Stars are So Big…I am So Small…Do I Stand a Chance” grooves like T. Rex fronting the Ohio Players. It’s a tad bit repetitive, which is until the second half starts, another slow meditative ending to a dance inducing number. First single, “Mr. Ambulance Driver,” albeit here in a different form, comes next, surely familiar to most fans since its inclusion on the Wedding Crashers soundtrack over nine months ago. “The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat)” is the widely distributed second single (I’ve heard it on at least four different magazine compilations) and continues the headphone mastery as well as the grass roots political messages. The faux scratching, fuzz guitar, harmonic vocal backgrounds, echoing screams and electronic metronome beat all make this one of the singles of the year. The Floyd likeness continues with the ominously titled “Pompeii am Götterdämerung” before the album closes with the ’70s am radio rock friendliness of “Goin’ On.”
At War with the Mystics is the first real album designed specifically for the iPod generation. Its studio mastery makes it perfect for those dangerously loud ear buds, while also expressing all of those Move On anti-Bush sentiments that the young people seem to be eating up (just look at Green Day). Indie hipsters are already starting to cry foul about the more straightforward feel of the album, getting ready to volley with the requisite “I was into them way before you,” speeches, but there is no denying that the Lips have yet another superior product on their hands with this album. I am reminded of being in a local Seattle bar with friends when someone fed the jukebox a laundry load of quarters just to hear another Dave Fridmann touched project, Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, all the way through. It’s probably not long before folks are doing the same with At War with the Mystics.