The tantalizing promise of this record may always have been impossible to realize. The obvious narrative is of a convox between the new and the old, some exalted passing of the torch, or at least a noble cosign, between psychedelic generations. But the true titillation comes from something just beneath, something darker and animal. While Neon Indian are upstarts of the blog age, with its associations of too-quick fame and media spoonfeeding, The Flaming Lips are iconic scrappers from Norman, Oklahoma (that is, an actual place, as opposed to being ‘from the internet’) with a visionary leader who spent years working at Long John Silver’s so he could keep on making music in obscurity. More than just a meeting between young upstarts and veterans of psychedelic weirdness, this is a musical referendum on two different ways to have a music career — one that can seem quick, easy, and ephemeral; and one that requires a level of commitment and persistence that, for the internet generation, is either mythical or pathological.
To understand what this means in practice, we have to adjust our naïve misconceptions about collaboration. While I’m sure everyone involved here had a monstrous blast, trading ideas and discussing old records and what have you, any collaborative artistic endeavor is also, always — and again, at a level just beneath the obvious — a battle to the death, inflected not just with competition, but with jealousy, malice, and rage. In particular, the relationship between any young artist and his elders is bound to be shot through with what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence — the fear that one, as an artist, cannot truly become free without throwing off all traces of styles that have come before.
To parse away the pseudoacademic babble, what I’m trying to say is that The Flaming Lips with Neon Indian is a recording of Alan Polomo trying to cut off Wayne Coyne’s cock.
Unlike Oedipus, for better or for worse, Polomo shows himself incapable of father-murder, as the four tracks on The Flaming Lips with Neon Indian only fleetingly reflect the hazy pop sensibility of Neon Indian. The Lips have always had a pop streak almost as wide as Polomo’s, but the pulsing, gnarled, unstructured stretches here find far more precedent in the Lips’ catalog than Polomo’s. You can imagine the scenario — maybe Polomo was so bowled over by meeting his heroes that his occasional, gentle inputs were offered like the tentative pitches of a marketing intern wearing his first necktie (and in fairness, the naming scheme here makes the hierarchy pretty clear).
Polomo’s missed cut might not have been a bad thing, of course — it’s not like The Flaming Lips have displayed a desperate lack of fresh ideas lately, and it’s certainly no time for Coyne to pass a torch. But this doesn’t sound much like a Flaming Lips record either, with relatively little of the band’s increasingly gemlike songcraft holding the spindly workouts together. Opener “Is David Bowie Dying?” unfolds with a bleak, minimal grace, but it doesn’t particularly go anywhere, and there’s a tossed-off, jammy feeling to the remaining three songs. Mysterious, atmospheric, and weird, yes — but nothing amazing.
How could two gifted artists come together to make a record that would sound more at home on a hand-dubbed cassette than limited-edition colored vinyl? Well, you could be generous, give them the benefit of the doubt — they’re just having fun, you might say. It’s just a limited release, a lark.
But no, clearly, you’ve not yet released your naïve fantasies of good vibes and friendly co-creation.
The key is in the title of its first track, for what we’re witnessing here is not just one failed murder, but two. As Polomo feebly scuffles with Coyne on the road to Thebes, Coyne seems to have his sights on his own psychedelic forbears, those who ably crossed almost entirely from songcraft to abstraction — say, David Bowie’s work with Eno, or even more specifically, Sonic Youth’s various extracurricular expeditions into pure noisy innerspace. Coyne has of course always shared DNA with Glenn Branca, Brian Eno, and all those who pushed entirely through, but it’s still undeniable that he’s spent two decades as, primarily, a pop star, while holding onto huge artistic ambition.
While this collaborative EP doesn’t show the depth of, say, the SYR works, it may indicate a redirection of the Lips’ ambition away from semi-camp goofballery into something more self-consciously ‘serious.’ But don’t delude yourself: it’s all about dad’s dick in the end.