Artist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Oczy Mlody
In Brief: This album is to The Flaming Lips what Hail to the Thief was to Radiohead. It’s a summation of past sounds, perhaps a bit of a breather after two of their most experimental and alienating albums, but a record whose overall flow and concept suffers due to the attempt to paste together sounds and styles that have worked for them in the past.
It’s weird to think that, despite my long and sometimes tumultuous history of trying to make sense of The Flaming Lips‘ music, I’ve only been listening to the band for a little over half their career. A lot of their present-day fans are probably in that boat, given the career renaissance that records like 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots were for the band. While they’ve had a strong psychedelic streak throughout, those records helped to redefine them as more of a “dream pop” outfit, bringing in curious new listeners who might have been put off by the wild experiments heard on some of their older material. 2009’s Embryonic pretty definitively brought that phase of their career to a halt, at least in terms of it being relatively accessible for new fans, but it brought them a fair amount of acclaim nonetheless, and some days I feel like I’m the only person who’s enjoyed their music before and after that point, yet totally didn’t get that record. 2013’s The Terror pretty firmly put the nail in the coffin of their “dream pop” days if Embryonic hadn’t done that already, but for some strange reason I managed to connect with its mostly slow, mega-depressed, paranoia-inducing, and occasionally downright abrasive sound. I wouldn’t say it made me as excited as my personal high point for the band, 2006’s At War with the Mystics, but it taught me that there was still some new ground for this band to explore that would actually resonate with me in some way. There have, of course, been a myriad of non-album projects and bizarre collaborations in between that I honestly haven’t bothered with (most notably the unholy alliance of them serving as Miley Cyrus‘s backing band for an entire record and tour), because there’s only so far down that rabbit hole I can go with these guys.
A new studio album has made its way to us at all, the curiously titled Oczy Mlody, and for the most part, I’m finding it to be a pretty convincing reprise of the sound and spirit of nearly every album they’ve made since The Soft Bulletin. For the most part, that’s a good thing. But if you’re expecting up-tempo anthems a la “Race For the Prize” or “Fight Test” mixed in with your more ethereal, navel-gazing passages about life and death, you might come up a bit short with this one. And if you’re expecting an overall unifying theme that brings the songs together as clearly and hauntingly as The Terror did, you’re probably also out of luck. This record is mostly downbeat, filled to the brim with sad, lonely synths and minimalist drum programming, with occasional moments of gleeful weirdness here and there, but for the most part still living in the contemplative aftermath of its traumatized predecessor. In fact, it’s the odd mixture of downer ballads and weird moments of levity that makes this album feel a bit off-kilter. The Terror was singular in its focus on the utter despair of a world without love, and several of their past albums, while they’ve had their fair share of fatalistic navel-gazing, have managed to balance it a little better with the more exuberant and sardonic sides of their personality. I just don’t know from track to track what Oczy Mlody‘s focus is supposed to be, and while I like some of the tracks on both sides of the equation, the jarring contrast between the two is really distracting.
I’m also not quite sure how well the tangential inspiration from Polish literature that gives us the album title and a few loose song ideas works as a “theme”, nor am I sure this whole thing from front to back works anywhere near as well as a listening experience as any of the past albums I’ve mentioned. At times, I find myself frustrated with the spaciousness and the lengthy down-tempo sections of certain songs – they’ve got more band members crammed into the lineup than ever before, and yet Wayne Coyne and his longtime bandmates Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd somehow managed to sound more like a “full band” back when they were a three-piece. I honestly have a hard time figuring out what there is for seven different people to be doing on several of these tracks. Perhaps that’s just a side effect of where rock music is going overall these days – synthesizers and studio tricks seem to have been fully accepted as tools to explore and abuse, rather than pre-fabricated gimmicks to avoid, and while I appreciate the open-mindedness, I do really miss hearing these guys jam out like they did on some of the spazzier tracks from those earlier albums. Oczy Mlody means well, but it’s lopsided, and as much as I try to get to its mostly gentle groove, I find that it wears thin a lot quicker than most of their albums do. Most of the best stuff here is buried pretty deep, and it’s certainly worth finding, but be prepared for a mixed bag if you’re gonna take this record on all in one sitting.
1. Oczy Mlody
Opening with a laid-back instrumental theme seems like an odd change of pace for the Lips. Every album they’ve done from The Soft Bulletin up until now has opened with one of its biggest and most accessible numbers, from “Race to the Prize” all the way up through “Look… the Sun Is Rising”. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing to change it up, but when they instead begin an album with an exploratory piece like this that’s chill enough to sound like it really belongs somewhere in the middle, I have to wonder what the motivation was for doing so, or why it ended up being the title track. (There might technically be two title tracks on this album… more on that later). There’s nothing bad about this one, but as an intro to the record, it’s a bit long at three minutes, and it leads into another fairly mellow song, so I don’t feel like the album is necessarily putting its best foot forward here.
Despite how weird it is to me that this spaced-out, stream-of-consciousness composition is the first proper song on the album, I actually do enjoy its mellow vibe and the existential quandary at its core. Summing up my reaction to this track overall is hard, because it’s like the Lips took a track I really liked and a track I really hated, and fused the two together. I’m 100% on board with the ethereal keyboards, the melancholy lament of wanting to communicate a thought or a feeling and not knowing how, and the atonal industrial sounds that give it a “sad machine” sort of feel akin to a few songs from The Terror. But I’m 0% on board with the awful verse lyrics, which seem to have been strung together with little concern for continuity or for how they affected the vibe of the song overall: “White trash rednecks, earthworms eat the ground/Legalize it, every drug right now/Are you with us or are you burnin’ out?/Kill your rock ‘n roll, motherf***in’ hip-hop sound.” This turns what should be a sad but beautiful song into something trashy and ugly. And I realize that Wayne Coyne enjoys putting those sorts of jarring juxtapositions in his music, so it’s not like they were trying to write some epic, universally relatable lyric and they failed. I get that he’s trying to be avant garde here, but there’s nothing in this apparent randomness that I find appealing. It’s a waste of an otherwise enjoyable, slow-burning space rock tune.
3. There Should Be Unicorns
You can probably tell from the title that the Lips are at their most utterly ridiculous here, and while I certainly don’t mind them reverting to total silliness after spending their previous album in the doldrums, I have to say that the lyrics here – which are basically a list of demands for a totally unrealistic and otherworldly birthday party – don’t mesh at all with the robotic beeps and bloops and the overall meditative vibe of the music. This one takes forever to get going and never really rises to the level of loudness or ridiculousness that the music calls for. As amusing as it is that a grown man thinks he can demand that only the unicorns with purple eyes – not the ones with green eyes because apparently this guy is some sort of a unicorn racist – make an appearance at his event, things get a bit skeevy when he starts demanding “day-glow strippers, ones from the Amazon” and offers to bribe the police into “helping us steal the light of love from the rainbow sluts that live next door.” If the overall vibe you’re going for is some sort of a utopian lovefest, then maybe don’t drag it down with chauvinistic implications, ‘K? My patience with this track – which is six minutes long thanks to its long intro and taking its sweet time to make even some loose semblance of a point – has pretty much run out by the time comedian Reggie Watts shows up to deliver a spoken-word monologue that mostly rehashes lyrical ideas Wayne has already expressed, in a deep and bizarrely seductive tone of voice that sounds like a cross between Barry White and Keith David narrating one of those Civil War documentaries on PBS. This should be hilariously weird, but it instead smacks of desperation, beating a dead horse (dead unicorn?) to make an idea sound funny long past the point where any amusement can be wrung out of it. It’s like one of those really bad Saturday Night Live skits that air at 12:50 AM.
4. Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)
This would be the other title track, since Oczy Mlody is apparently a rather mangled translation of the phrase “Eyes of the Young”. Just a little footnote there for you. It’s certainly worthy of its designation as a key track on the album, despite its unlikely origins as part of the Dead Petz collaboration that the band did with Miley Cyrus. What started as “The Floyd Song (Sunrise)” evolved into this beautiful lament that only shares its first verse with Miley’s version, and which pretty radically changes up the music, yet maintains a similarly downbeat, subtly psychedelic sort of vibe. I love the deep thumping of the bass and the echoing piano chords. It’s an arrestingly pretty arrangement, with some ethereal breaks between each verse that remind me of the slow interludes in their song “In the Morning of the Magicians”. Wayne’s lyrics are both imaginative and tragic here, as he’s left reeling from the death of his “flower” (which could be interpreted as an actual person who shuffled off this mortal coil, or just the ending of a relationship – I believe the original inspiration was an actual pet dog of Miley’s that passed away), and the morning sun comes all too soon, before he’s willing to let the light back into his life, posing all sorts of harsh and existential questions about how he can go on alone. This song has no chorus to speak of, but the verse is memorable enough that it doesn’t need one. The shift from sunrise to midday to sunset is pulled off quite nicely across the three stanzas, making the song feel complete even without a lyrical refrain to tie it all together. It’s also worth noting that despite the parental advisory sticker on this record, the line “The sunset is f***in’ with my head” in the final verse is the last instance of strong language on this album – apparently they decided to get it all out of their system early on this time around.
5. Nigdy Nie (Never No)
This track is one of a few on the album that may as well be instrumental, due to how meaningless the lyrics are when taken in a vacuum. “Never, no, never” and “Forever, yeah, forever” are the only lyrics here, repeated throughout the song, with a bit of space left for some heavier noodling on the bass and drums near the end. It’s got a decent enough vibe as far as interludes go, but it’s four minutes long, and considering that it reprises the melody from “There Should Be Unicorns”, that’s four more minutes of something I already got too many minutes of in the first place. I mean damn, I only just barely got that irritating song out of my head thanks to the one track in between.
6. Galaxy I Sink
This is one of the sparsest songs on the album, with slow, skittering beats and a rather dull, gloomy melody. Wayne Coyne, while he’s certainly not the world’s best vocalist, usually knows how to make the raspy imperfections in his voice work to his advantage, and while they do help to communicate the mood of defeatism and despair in this song, it’s still a bit of a chore to listen to, feeling a lot longer than its actual four minute run time. The whole “slow verse and even slower interlude” recipe that worked for “Sunrise” makes this song seem dead on arrival, because there’s so little to it other than dry, reverbed-out electric guitar, some cold keyboards in the background, and the minimalist drum programming. While the lyrics about watching someone retreat slowly into themselves and become unreachable due to a deep depression are relatable, I can’t help but feel like the Lips did stuff like this much better on The Terror, where the music was designed to be unsettling and alarming instead of just fading into the background. I need a song like this to provoke some sort of an emotion within me, even if that emotion is slight disturbance. If that emotion is sheer boredom, then the song just plain doesn’t work.
7. One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill
This playful song is a nice reminder that, however fuzzed-out and overdubbed and otherwise buried behind computerized trickery they might be, the band still has a formidable rhythm section. This song, while in keeping with the slow to mid-tempo pace of most of the album, gives it a bit of a shot in the butt with its liberal use of low-end here, giving the percussion a melodic tint to it that makes it sound like a computerized timpani. It’s the rare genius hook on an album sadly lacking in that department, and it makes Wayne’s bizarre story of setting out to hunt mythical creatures and only ending up shooting himself in the face more appealing than you’d think it would be. I thought for quite a while that this song, fun as it was, didn’t have much more of a meaning to it than the remnants of a bad acid trip, but looking a little closer at it, I can see a bit of a veiled metaphor here, as his attempt to assassinate a wizard in his cave ends up with the bullet ricocheting and severing his eyes from his brain. Then, the fairy tale creatures he had set out with malicious intent against actually band together and come to his aid, sprinkling some magic “frog dust” on him, and I’m not sure if that heals his lost sight or if it turns him into a frog… the song’s a bit fuzzy on that point. If you like, you can read this as a rather broad statement against xenophobia and the blind fits of rage and violence that it can lead us to. I’m not sure if that analogy was intended, but this is the closest thing we get to a political statement on the entire record. (If you want an actual mention of our current Cheeto-in-Chief in a Flaming Lips song, ironically you’ll have to go back in time about a decade and listen to “Free Radicals”. You know what, just do that anyway. It’s an even awesomer song now than it was back then.)
8. Do Glowy
I don’t know what’s worse… filling an interlude with annoying, repetitive lyrics when it’s reprising a song I already didn’t like, or doing the same thing to sabotage the rhythm and melody of a song I actually did like. This one pretty much picks up where “One Night…” left off, repeating the phrase “Glowy, glowy, glow” and other variants of the words “glow”, “dew”, “drippy”, etc. ad nauseum, with one of the few intelligible phrases in the entire thing being the refrain “I thought we should spend the night together”. They go absolutely bonkers with the vocal pitch-shifting here, which is cute at first, but it gets old fast. Four minutes of this makes it feel like the two tracks combined are a behemoth, 10-minute song, and while I suppose that’s still on the conservative side considering the strung-out jam sessions the Lips have put to tape before, it’s still far too much of what was initially a good thing.
9. Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes
Ugh, this song is such a slow, unpleasant slog to wade through. A merely passable drum and bass groove makes the verse tolerable enough, like one of the mellower songs from Embryonic, but between verses, it drifts off into such a slow and mostly tuneless haze that I’ve already tuned out by the time starts moaning “Have you ever seen someone die in the summertime?” in what this song considers a chorus. It’s dark and bleak. I get that. It’s not supposed to be catchy. I don’t have a problem with that. But there’s a difference between staring into the truly scary abyss of death and not knowing what lies beyond it, and the bland malaise that comes up here as Wayne tries to ponder it. Once again, I’m not convinced that the sound matches the song, and that drives the irritation factor way up as this song struggles to find a memorable way to express itself for seven and a half minutes.
10. The Castle
Fortunately the record manages to maintain my interest from here on out. Thematically, the bleak navel-gazing of the previous song makes sense as a setup for this one, which is much more melodic and sympathetic as it ponders the tragedy of a friend who committed suicide. The beat and the light “dream pop” feel of it almost make it feel like it could be a bookend to Part 1 of the title track from Yoshimi. Imagine if the warrior princess had died by her own hand instead of valiantly fighting off pink robots, and now she’s being eulogized at a funeral by a man who wants her to be remembered for her beauty and strength, and not for the moment of weakness that brought the castle crumbling down from within. The ache in Wayne’s voice as he sings “And the castle will never be rebuilt again” is 100% convincing, and the band provides just the right mix of grace and sensitivity, while also working in some weird electronic noises here and there just to remind you they’re still enjoying the creative process even in this sad state. It’s a genuine tear-jerker, a disarming moment of clarity on an album that’s seemed rather unsure of itself for most of its run thus far.
11. Almost Home (Blisko Domu)
I remember thinking near the end of The Terror that it needed a penultimate track to gracefully bring us back up out of the abyss before ending with a comparatively up-tempo finale. This track serves that purpose pretty well, despite fooling me into thinking it would more aimless wandering at first. It’s really two mini-songs crammed together – another electronic interlude with repetitive lyrics at the beginning, and then it downshifts into a more comfortable groove for its last few minutes for the song proper. Apparently the inspiration for this one was a fake Buddha quote, the kind of thing that gets passed around on social media by folks who don’t even bother to question whether it could be the real thing (which is sort of like what keeps happening to George Carlin, now that I think about it). It sounds all enlightened and lofty – “The thought soon becomes the word/The word then becomes the deed/If the deed is evil/Blame the thought that is the seed.” And maybe there is some worth to it even if it was plagiarized from a source that now goes uncredited. Coyne took this idea and ran with it, expanding the mantra out to a few more verses, and in a way, it feels like it could have been a response to the utter despair of “Turning Violent” from The Terror, even though musically it probably wouldn’t fit on that album. I like how the cascading synth melody heard at the beginning of the song comes back around near the end, fitting in perfectly at the same tempo we first heard it, even though the tempo of the other instruments has completely shifted. Come to think of it, even though this song runs a bit longer than it really should, I like all of its little sonic details – the background ambiance and occasional odd noises make it a more fascinating listening experience than it probably looks like it would be if you just read the lyrics on paper.
12. We a Famly
The final track, which is a duet with Miley Cyrus, seems about as incongruous with the rest of the record as “Sun Blows Up Today” did if you heard it on The Terror and didn’t realize it was meant to be a bonus track. As bleak as some of their songs can get, The Flaming Lips seem to have a penchant for ending their records on an up note, and this easygoing, mid-tempo tune definitely fits the bill. The fact that it starts off with something I can actually recognize as electric guitar is a nice change of pace, even if it’s just strumming simple chords. The song in general is a pretty simple affirmation of people who miss each other coming back together and being a big, happy family once again – other than some weirdness about “Jesus and a spaceship coming down” the quirkiness factor in the lyrics is kept to a minimum here. Coyne has said that he doesn’t believe in God, but in a weird way he would sort of like to, which makes me wonder if he’s musing about the possibility of our souls somehow again meeting after death, whether it’s by way of supernatural beings or aliens. And I may be reading way too much into a lyric he just tossed off to be goofy, but it would actually bring a bit of resolve to some of the sad situations expressed earlier in the record. Since the eerie background noises and such are an integral part of nearly every song on this record, I have to mention that this song quite nicely works in a sample from “How??” that gives the record a nice bit of symmetry as it wraps up. I haven’t mentioned a whole lot about Miley’s involvement here – she sings a second verse which is mostly a mirror of Wayne’s first verse, and then joins him for the chorus, and honestly what’s most noteworthy about it is how low-key she is here. I’m so used to our culture’s popular perception of her as a loud-mouthed, troublemaking pop star hell-bent on proving she’s all grown up and can be as raunchy as she wants to be and that Hannah Montana is deader than a doornail that I forget she has a relaxed, sensitive side too. So despite the potshot at her Dead Petz shenanigans that I took with my review title, I’m actually going to go on record as saying that the two Miley-influenced songs on this record are some of its best ones. Even though the little bits of giggling and studio chatter at the very end of this song might be a little cutesy for the Lips’ own good, on some level I have to respect their insistence on seeing artistic merit in the pop stars that a lot of us indie rock aficionados tend to dismiss as vapid and trashy.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Oczy Mlody $.50
There Should Be Unicorns –$.25
Sunrise (Eyes of the Young) $1.75
Nigdy Nie (Never No) $.25
Galaxy I Sink –$.50
One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill $1.50
Do Glowy $.50
Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes –$.75
The Castle $1.25
Almost Home (Blisko Domu) $1
We a Famly $1.25
Wayne Coyne: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, theremin
Michael Ivins: Bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Steven Drozd: Guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, backing vocals
Derek Brown: Guitars, keyboards, percussion, backing vocals
Jake Ingalls: Keyboards, guitars
Matt Duckworth: Drums, percussion, keyboards, backing vocals
Nick Ley: Drums, percussion, sampling
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: