Wednesday, June 27, 2012

album review: 'the flaming lips and heady fwends' by the flaming lips

Short version: it's incredibly weird and the mix of the psychedelic and avant-garde will throw some people off, but in terms of beautifully coherent and powerful art, you're not going to find a better album this year. Highly recommended.

Have you ever contemplated the end of the world?

It may seem like a vague, strange, almost-silly question, drenched in unfortunate implications and terrible pop culture (particularly in this year), but it's something that's fascinated the thinkers, great and small, throughout time. Everyone wonders what the end of the world would be like, what will happen to this tiny planet suspended in the galactic cosmos. Less often is the question of what one would do at the end of the world, and outside of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, a Steve Carrell/Keira Knightley movie that's currently one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, most people don't have good answers to the question. Why?

Well, perhaps because the question is loaded, because you're not only forced to contemplate your death in the question, but the chance that everything around you, everything you've ever cherished and loved, will be gone with you. No memories left behind, no fond recollections, no legacy, no... nothing. It was what Melancholia tried (and arguably failed) to capture - the possibility that everything you've ever done will amount to precisely nothing as everything you define as existence collapses and vanishes around you - ultimately, what does everything mean then?

The closest I've ever heard to capturing this vision was the prog/space metal epic from Ayreon 01011001, but that album's themes were more linked to the greater questions of human existence and the significance of life, lacking the necessary focus to truly contemplate this question in any significant detail. I'd also argue the album, while very strong, didn't quite nail down the necessary emotions to truly encapsulate what makes this question so significant. That album, loaded with bombast and intensity, didn't quite capture the little emotions, the quiet thoughts that were necessary to make the question truly resonate. Because, like it or not, not all of us have the courage or force of will to stare straight into the apocalypse with open arms.

The Flaming Lips have the courage, and with their newest album, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, they probably do the most thorough and deep exploration of the question that I've ever heard, with collaborators on every track to lend additional facets to the digression.

And it's glorious.

First of all, a bit of background - the Flaming Lips were an alt-rock act that began in the late 80s and were most characterized for having fantastic live shows and doing incredible amounts of acid - and beileve me, that latter fact does come across in their music. To say this music is odd and complex and obtuse is understating it - this band is WEIRD in all caps, and they aren't ones to wait for anyone to catch up. And I won't lie, that makes most of their catalogue completely inaccessible to the majority of people, to the point where I really didn't think I could write a good review here that could adequately express how I felt about their music. If I'm being completely honest, the majority of people would probably have a hard time getting into the Flaming Lips, simply because they'd consider it avant-garde noise in the vein of 'Revolution 9' (and before you ask, yes, Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band is on this album, and I'll get to it).

So yeah, of course Pitchfork loves this sort of thing, but let me clarify why I think a Flaming Lips album loaded with avant-garde and indie collaborators is worth your time:
  1. For all of their inaccessibility to most and total weirdness, the Flaming Lips are not trying to be painfully oblique and obscure. On the contrary, this album has a very strong theme of universality that lead vocalist Wayne Coyne pulls off that I found really appealing - the apocalypse isn't just for hipsters, you know. Whenever there is navel-gazing, it's purposeful and meaningful.
  2. There are a lot of collaborators, even ones you've heard of! Between Chris Martin of Coldplay, Bon Iver, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes to Ke$ha (no, seriously), there are enough recognizable voices on the album to draw at least some interest, even when their sound is filtered through the Flaming Lips' strangeness.
  3. Finally, most of the weirdness is a product of the production and the sound - if you can get past that, the lyrics are surprisingly easy to follow. This is a real surprise and pleasure coming from the Flaming Lips, considering this is a band where Pitchfork just gave up trying to understand their lyrics. Sure, the deeper meanings behind those lyrics are complex and layered, but if you're going for a more superficial listen, the album still delivers.
So let's revisit the question above: what would you do at the end of the world? Would you try to party the pain away like Ke$ha does, with the painful realization that it's all so meaningless (incidentally, if this opening track - one of the best of the album, I'd add - does not cement the facts that not only were Ke$ha's stupider hits products of irony, but that she's way smarter than one might think, then nothing will)? Or would you, like Bon Iver, try to hold onto a fragment of love in a relationship that seems paltry when confronted with the apocalypse? Would you try to help others you can hardly communicate with find a god you are losing faith in, like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes? These are the big, complex questions that are raised by the first three tracks of the album, an impressive feat even for a band as talented as the Flaming Lips, and the fact that none of the songs feel tonally inconsistent is fucking amazing.

And then it keeps coming. Would you stare with panic at the sky, fear freezing you like with Prefuse 73? Would you seek some colony beyond with only the vaguest ideas of its existence, like Tame Impala? Would you dismiss and deny the fear with impressive gusto, like Jim James from My Morning Jacket (on a side note, while I'm not the biggest fan of this track, the sarcasm Jim James delivers here is impressive)? Or would you try to lead humanity in its final hours like Nick Cave, a figurehead all too aware of impending death and determined to go out on top?

But the hard questions don't stop there either. Would you work towards an escape like Lightning Bolt, even though a self-induced haze of acid leads you further into despondency? Would you just choose to fuck everything and anything in your path, like Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band (have to admit, this isn't one of my favourite songs, but I accept its placement as thematically relevant on the record)? Would you consider the pop culture around you and consider whether or not it contains meaning in the face of annihilation, like Neon Indian (a big surprise here, definitely one of the better tracks on the album)? Or would you seek a simpler love as the world collapses around you, like Erykah Badu in a stunning cover of 'The First Time I Saw Your Face' (seriously, easily one of the four best tracks of the album, along with Ke$ha's, the Magnetic Zeroes', and the last track - it's fucking beautiful)?

I have to agree with Pitchfork on the only real problem with the album, 'Girl, You're So Weird', featuring New Fumes, because it doesn't raise much of a question of the listener, assuming the guise of a hipster too cool and disaffected to be bothered by the end of the world, which runs contrary to the universality and general atmosphere of the album (in addition to being a lousy, dreary song). There's no question, just smug hipster condescension, which doesn't work on a Flaming Lips album with this theme, and it doesn't entirely feel realistic either - when confronted with their own mortality, how many hipsters could remain disaffected and smug? Fortunately, the album is saved by the last collaboration with Chris Martin of Coldplay, which raises the simplest question of it all: is it perhaps the best answer just to accept the end, cherishing your dreams and everything that you've done, acknowledging that things could have been better and that nobody wants to die, but that peaceful acceptance is the best way to enter that good night? It's analogous to a line from the final song of Ayreon's 01011001 - 'The meaning of life/Is to give life meaning'.

I have to be honest with you, I think this album is fucking brilliant, and I also know it's probably going to be the one fewest of you will listen. But at this point, I don't care - with this cohesive, amazingly structured and powerfully real album, the Flaming Lips have once again proven why they're some of the best in the genre of psychedelic, avant-garde music. If you're willing to try something weird and off-beat and artistic and interesting, I can't recommend this album enough.

So, I have to ask - what will you do at the end of the world?

1 comment:

  1. Ayo Mark from Spectrum Pulse, what I would do at the end of the world? I'd probably pray for my friends because I love them