The Flaming Lips’ new album The Terror is out today, and… well, it’s pretty good, to be honest. Does anyone care? We hope so, but then, you couldn’t blame them for not paying a great deal of attention, given that making actual music seems to be rather low on The Flaming Lips’ list of priorities these days. As has been well documented, over the last couple of years the band has devolved into something of a traveling sideshow, a sort of ongoing publicity stunt for the titillation of the music press. Is their latest album good enough to make us take them seriously again?
The whole what’s-going-on-with-Wayne-Coyne question is one that only the man himself can answer, but a single statement related to one of the controversies that have beset him over the last couple of years seems particularly telling. It’s buried in Erykah Badu’s epic rant about the aborted video for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” her collaboration with the Lips, wherein she relates the story of how Coyne pitched the original idea for the clip to her. (If you missed the controversy, the idea basically involved her sitting in bathtubs of faux-blood and faux-semen, an idea to which she did not respond well.) “When [I] asked what the concept meant after u explained it,” she writes, addressing Coyne, “u replied, ‘It doesn’t mean anything, I just want to make a great video that everyone is going to watch.'”
If there’s anything that summarizes the problem with The Flaming Lips these days, it’s exactly this: none of what they do seems to mean anything anymore. Where once the band’s theatrics served the cause of their art, now the music and its message have been subjugated to the spectacle — a spectacle that exists for no other reason than to draw attention to the band. This is a great shame, considering that circa the late 1990s and early ’00s, The Flaming Lips were pretty much the closest thing you could have to a genuinely spiritual experience through music. Coyne’s written some of the most beautiful and meaningful songs the medium of rock ‘n’ roll has given us: “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “In the Morning of the Magicians,” and, of course, “Do You Realize??” The Flaming Lips’ music has never exactly been accessible, outside of their novelty hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” but at its best there’s a pure sort of universal simplicity to it — even an apparently abstruse concept like that behind Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (the drummer from the Boredoms fights giant evil robots) turned into a record both moving and profound.
These days, it doesn’t seem that way. Somewhere along the way, they stopped pushing boundaries artistically and started just trying to push boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries. Much of what Coyne does seems deliberately obtuse — for instance, what was he thinking trying to carry a grenade through airport security in Oklahoma City? The Lips are still great musicians and songwriters, it’s just that their talents have been overshadowed by their leader’s interest in tweeting photos of his ass or his naked wife or the drugs he did with Ke$ha. When the band does release new music, half the time it comes in marijuana-flavored gummy skulls or life-size chocolate hearts.
There’s nothing particularly artistically interesting in any of this — really, it’s just marketing, a sort of wacky psychedelic equivalent of the limited-edition box set. Nor is there anything of great artistic merit about the band’s other recent stunts. Take playing eight gigs in 24 hours, for example, an exercise that probably did a better job drumming up publicity than creating meaningful experiences for fans.
Of course, The Flaming Lips have to some extent always been about the spectacle — their natural flamboyance is part of their appeal. And it’s not like they haven’t been guilty of previous crimes of the gummyskull variety: Zaireeka, for instance, pretty much defines being a concept first and an album second. After all, how many people had four CD players on which they could hit “Play” at the same time? But still, it seemed to have a reason for existing beyond, “Hey, let’s just fuck with people”: it was an experiment with the possibilities of surround sound and production. More generally, The Flaming Lips’ madcap sensibility used to have… if not purpose, then at least a sense that it existed in the service of art, not just as a generalized demand for attention.
It’s harder to make that argument about the stuff the band is doing these days. At some point, they stopped selling art and started selling the spectacle, and the sad thing is that the Lips themselves still don’t seem to realize this. If they do, they clearly just don’t care; look how happily Coyne flirts with self-parody in the commercial he recently did for Virgin Mobile.
But is it possible that we’re just investing their work with retrospective significance and depth? Maybe none of it ever meant anything. Coyne himself insists that the Lips have always been as they are today, telling the NME recently, “We sound like we really know what we’re doing and the truth is we don’t know what we’re doing… You keep thinking that someone is gonna knock on the door [and say], ‘Flaming Lips, we know it’s all bullshit, it’s over’… but nobody has yet.”
Whatever the case, it’s a shame to see the man who asked “Do You Realize??” reduced to Amanda Palmer-esque “look at meeeeeee” stunts like releasing records made with blood or throwing balloons full of money at fans (or, you know, collaborating with Amanda Palmer). The shame of it is that most of us don’t know whether the music the band released in the gummy skull or the heart is any good or not — and even those of us who are still hanging on as fans in danger of starting not to care. As a result, The Flaming Lips have a whole heap of ground to make up with The Terror.
The good news? They may just do so, because the album really is worth hearing. It doesn’t approach the glory of their two millennial masterpieces, but few albums do. But it’s certainly better than the largely forgettable At War With the Mystics and the somewhat decent Embryonic. It proves that the band that made such wonderful music is still there beneath all the stunts. Will anyone still notice? That remains to be seen.