Formed in 1983 in Oklahoma City, The Flaming Lips are a prime example of “diverse discography,” with releases ranging from the psychedelic pop masterpiece “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” to the dreary and overwhelmingly heavy “The Terror.” Theirs is a rather large collection of albums, which can be briefly discussed starting at their sixth studio album “Transmissions From the Satellite Heart,” where The Flaming Lips experienced their first hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” From there came the underappreciated “Clouds Taste Metallic” and what may be my favorite musical experiment: “Zaireeka,” an album with four different versions that can be enjoyed separately or, as was intended, played simultaneously for an entirely unique musical experience. Following this came the Lips’ two most acclaimed albums, “The Soft Bulletin” and the aforementioned “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” These two albums form a strong basis for just what psychedelic and dream pop aspires to be. I’m not one to arbitrarily assign “golden eras” to artists of any form, but were I forced to for the Lips it would definitely be 1999-2002.
The three most permanent members of the band consist of eccentric frontman Wayne Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins and guitarist/drummer Steven Drozd. Coyne’s personality bleeds into his music to such an extent that one can purport 2013’s “The Terror” to be a reflection of his mid-life crisis and the ensuing depression.
“The Terror” seemed to be a permanent end to the fun-loving Lips that we knew, replacing the giddy descriptions of fighting large pink robots with enveloping environments of dark ambience. Besides an ill-fated cover album of The Beatles’ beloved “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” the following year and an EP recorded for the film “Ender’s Game,” the Lips have been relatively quiet for the past four years. Their newest effort, released on the tail of the new year, is an interesting combination of style with great ambition but somewhat poor execution.
“Oczy Mlody,” the 14th studio album by The Flaming Lips, is a confounding near-hour-long beast. Its title, and some of the track titles, are Polish phrases that Coyne came upon in a novel he lad lying around in his studio. The phrase “oczy mlody” specifically means “eyes of the young” according to Coyne, but he alludes to the band’s affinity with the phrase stemming from a connection to the narcotic painkiller “oxycodone.”
The new record has been hailed as a return to the “Yoshimi”-era sound for the Lips, but this is just simply not the case. “Oczy Mlody” performs its duty admirably as far as progressing the band’s sound and helping it to evolve. It can most simply be described as having some elements of the playful psychedelic pop era mixed in with some ambient layers straight from “The Terror.” Such a combination can be observed in its proto-form with the previously mentioned EP for “Ender’s Game” (titled “Peace Sword”), but “Oczy Mlody” arrives with a far more refined sound and direction.
We’re led into the 12-song album with a regrettably uninteresting instrumental track simply titled “Oczy Mlody.” It’s short and spacy, alluding to a particular musical theme for the rest of the record, but is rather uninteresting and, frankly, a little vanilla for the eccentricities we’re used to hearing from the Lips. Then again, it’s just an intro. The second track, “How??,” is what may be more accurately described as a first song. Even though it was chosen as a single, “How??” can best be described as a gradual, uneventful hike up a mountain. The whole song feels like a buildup to something epic, but by the end of the second verse things are just loud and claustrophobic. There’s a brief point where we can see the peak of the mountain and a drum beat kicks in a poppier direction for the previously ambience-absorbed song, but this lasts for only a few measures. The track ends before we reach the peak.
The next song, “There Should Be Unicorns,” feels like what “How??” should have been. The track ebbs and flows up and down in a satisfying manner, rather than an exhausting, no-payout uphill march. Its glitchy ambience and oscillating lead-synth strike that perfect balance between the two prominent Lips eras, and Coyne’s absurd vocal content and performance are just great. A weird sort of monologue repeating many of the track’s lines leads out of it, providing a moment of lovable weirdness from the Lips. This song, I believe, struck the best balance of the two eras. The rest of the album either leans to the “Yoshimi” side of the spectrum or the “Terror” side.
That being said, there’s relatively few “Yoshimi”-esque tracks on the album. “Nigdy Nie (Never No)” is an undeniable downtempo continuation of some “Terror”-esque sounds, but the epic blasts of noise and fuzzy guitar bring the track home, reminding the listener of the instrumental tracks from “Yoshimi.” There is then the mouthful of a track, “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill.” Roughly at the halfway point of the record, the track utilizes the most percussion yet. It keeps a smooth groove alongside the dormant blasts of noise that I would liken to a hammer being slammed on a metal sheet. The song goes on to add a bass and synthesizer and becomes the most head-bobby track on the album. It manages to stray from the pitfalls that so many of the other tracks ran into: it keeps the good moments long.
“How??” had a good moment that was over in literal seconds, “good moment” meaning a sort of climax, a point of musical bliss that the otherwise ambient track seemed to be leading into. “Galaxy I Sink,” which started out sounding like an early Grizzly Bear track, climaxed into an elegant orchestral piece that was, again, over in seconds. This exact thing occurred again on “Listening to the Frogs With Demon Eyes.” The “Terror”-esque tracks, in an attempt to ride the gap between the two sounds they’re attempting to combine, keep their climactic moments regrettably short.
The album habitually suffers from this flaw; it feels almost like the band was afraid to provide too much payoff to the songs that ultimately felt like giant buildups. There are a few tracks which bridge the sounds admirably, like “One Night While …,” “The Castle” and “Almost Home (Blisko Domu).” These tracks and a couple others combine the electronic with the physical in ways that one might not even explicitly notice at first, but the realization is a pleasant one. The drum machine and bass guitar combo, for example, goes together better than you’d initially expect. For most of the album, however, the ambient side is lent far more weight. This wouldn’t be an inherently bad thing if said ambient side didn’t always sound like a buildup to a nonexistent climax.
With the vast length of the record and its many identical moments, we should finish our discussion of it with “We a Famly,” the closing track that features Miley Cyrus. Everyone remembers when Cyrus changed her public look entirely, dropping the sweet Disney-kid shtick and becoming a performer all her own, in whatever vulgar manner she desired. Around that time she fell in with Wayne Coyne and, after they provided some musical contribution on her “Dead Petz” record, she’s come to provide an absolutely dreadful second verse on “We a Famly”. And yet, even despite her ear-grating feature, “We a Famly” happens to be one of my favorite tracks on the record. I’m biased with my affinity for the “Yoshimi”-era Lips, a theme that is most heavily represented in this track, but the residual ambience from “The Terror” is still ever-present. The song dignifies itself as the most shamelessly happy piece of music we’ve heard from The Flaming Lips in a long, long time. It’s a great closer to the album and (even after Cyrus’ performance) leaves a smile on my face with its absurd giddiness.
“Oczy Mlody” is not a triumphant return-to-style in the traditional sense. It’s a flawed combination of two distinct Lips eras into a sound that works decently well in its own right, if not just for one album. I hope to see the Lips change it up more in releases to come. The scorned fan out there may ask, however, if we’ll ever get the “old Lips” back. I’d quote Wayne Coyne on the album’s 10th track, “The Castle,” when he sings “And the castle can never be rebuilt again, no way.” Coyne revealed in an interview that the line refers to the suicide of a close friend of his, but before I knew this I interpreted it as a reference to the “old Lips”. Bands evolve. If they didn’t, we’d get tired of hearing the same stuff over and over (I’m looking at you, Weezer). The Flaming Lips may never return to the sound they had with “Yoshimi,” and that’s okay. That album will always be there for you to listen to. I don’t think fans of that era would even want an album that sounds identical to it. We as listeners simultaneously crave for bands to evolve and remain the same, a habit we might need to break if we’re tired of hating every new piece of music.