Little under a month ago I got the new Flaming Lips album, Embryonic. You would have thought that I’d review it shortly after getting it, and I intended to, but I ran up against a problem. I really like the album, the problem is that I don’t know why. This is not so much a review then as me simply attempting to rationalise what it is about the album that appeals.
I am a really big fan of The Flaming Lips; I have said before that I think The Soft Bulletin is pure happiness condensed into musical form. The reason for my love of them is that they are experts at producing what, on the face of it, amount to pop songs; relatively short, catchy songs which are very radio friendly. These songs however are not the generic, meaningless and talentless dross one normally hears on the radio, they have a deeper musical and lyrical quality to them. They are also completely absurd. These guys have written rock operas about Pink Robots taking over the world, songs full of distorted drums and strange melodies, lyrics about superman and mad scientists. In short they are completely bat-shit loco. Together this means that The Flaming Lips have achieved something very special; their music would be just as at home reverberating around an office at Pitchfork HQ as it would be blasting out of a radio is some kitchen somewhere. They have taken all the pretension and experimentation of indie music and decided that they can do it while still having commercial viability and, more importantly, fun.
That is why I love albums like The Soft Bulletin; it is so packed full of bizarre brilliance and pretentious absurdity that you would think that it would get self indulgent, but it manages to stay away from that. It has some truly wonderful pop songs, like ‘Waiting for Superman’ and ‘A spoonful weighs a ton’. These songs and indeed this album can be understood on so many levels; they are great pop songs, they are also deep, experimental and wholly pretentious. I love it because I can listen to it in pretty much any mood. If I feel happy and want something to match my mood, then I can put the Soft Bulletin on, if I’m pissed off and need something absurd and completely off the wall to take my mind off something, then I can out The Soft Bulletin on as well. If I’m feeling all sophisticated and pretentious I can try to get all uppity about the deeper meanings and experimental genius while I make my way to the closest bridge and throw myself off it. I can literally put all my Flaming Lips (and I have a lot of it) on shuffle and listen to it for as long as I want. It never gets old or annoying. Sure I may crave another band for a time, but I know they are one of those bands that I can always fall back on when I’m at a loss as to what to listen to.
There is one exception to all this. Back in 1997 the Flaming Lips produced the most awful 4 disk mess called Zaireeka. The idea was to put 4 parts of the same set of songs onto 4 different disks, such that in order to actually listen to the album you had to play all 4 disks at the same time. What? What kind of substance do you have to be taking to make that seem like a good idea? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to find 4 CD players, enlist 3 friends and get them all to press play at the same time before fully appreciate an album. I’ve no doubt that when put together you get some pretty decent music, but it’s like giving your fans the drum, guitar, bass and vocal tracks separately and asking them to mix it together for you. Actually it’s worse because having all the different parts to some songs would actually be pretty interesting. When you listen to the album as it comes, ie in four different CDs, it’s just lots of silence followed by occasional snippets of songs. In short, not very fun to listen to. Thankfully they had recovered from this bout of insanity in time for 1999, which brought the release of The Soft Bulletin. And all was well again.
The thing about Embryonic then, after a very long preamble, is that it most resembles Zaireeka in concept; it completely tears down all established conventions about song structure and lyrics. I’m used to lyrics being unclear, but even I still don’t have a clue what half the lyrics actually are unless I look in the lyric book provided with the album. There are no pop songs here; it is solid experimental, pretentious, structureless absurdity. No wonder Pitchfork gave it 9/10. This is the sort of music that I should hate. It represents all the ridiculousness of Indie music that I so ardently stand against. Even The Arcade Fire manage to produce albums full of songs as opposed to what feels like little more than a protracted jam session. It feels like someone shoved The Flaming Lips into a recording studio with a month’s supply of food and E and told them to come up with something. What lyrics there are flirt incoherently between Horoscopes, Evil, nature and The Machine. I should hate this album. And yet I love it.
For some reason, this mess of incoherent, unstructured, confused and wholly absurd excuses for songs appeals to me. It feels like Wayne Coyne (the front man) and co. have just snapped, refused to write any more songs that conform to expected conventions, no matter how sensible they are. Instead of creating an album as such they have simply poured their creative energy unchecked and formless onto a CD in the hope of creating a masterpiece and somehow they have managed it.
I didn’t know at the start of this blog what makes this album so good, and after much thought and many words I still don’t. I encourage you to buy the album because it is an experience that is unique. Few albums that I know of have managed to defy convention is such a stunningly successful way. Sure Rock Operas, concept albums and song which last the length of an album have all pushed the boundaries of conventions, but Embryonic crashes like a speeding train through these boundaries. They have gone so far past what is accepted that they have gone past the point were they can be dismissed as pretentious hipster onto a whole new level. Their album works because is simply refuses to half arse anything. Because of this they have gotten away with what would normally be considered artistic suicide. I’m not saying this album will redefine what is accepted because the very reason is it so outstanding is because it is so unacceptable. In short, it is an album that can only be made once.