30 years and 14 albums into their unlikely career, the story of The Flaming Lips has become one of gradual decay and renewal. The core trio of Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Michael Ivins has defied all stereotypes of aging and financial success to release some of their most exciting music, even when the band has seemed ready to collapse. After Zaireeka brought an end to their early punk rock days with an album that was literally unlistenable for those not motivated enough to obtain four sets of speakers, the Lips released The Soft Bulletin. At War With The Mystics would’ve been a fitting major label dead-end for the fearless freaks, but then there was the charged, bewildering Embryonic. Then came a six hour song. Then came a 24-hour song. There has always been a tense balance between inspiration and gimmick when it comes to The Flaming Lips, but over the past decade, the band rediscovered how to fold their music into the dayglo costumes of their neo-hippie theatrics. By embracing the sound of a group of high-profile musicians with unlimited studio time and too many gadgets at their disposal, The Flaming Lips of the 2010s has managed to convey a lackadaisical yet massive sense of vibrant and ramshackle discovery.
So, after all this refreshing late-career experimentation, it’s disappointing that Oczy Mlody takes such a rote, unmusical approach to the Lips’ cosmic pop. Gone are Steven Drozd’s larger than life drums, gone is the feeling of a group working out their sound at the same time that they record it; what we have instead is a quiet, tidy collection of half-songs that seems as if it was cobbled together just for the sake of having something to put on shelves. In short bursts, Oczy Mlody contains traces of the sweet, heart-on-the-sleeve songwriting that epitomized the group’s golden days (like on the simple and anthemic “How??” or in the melancholic bounce of “The Castle”). But by and large, the record is carried along on a stream of soft, tired elevator psychedelia, powered by flimsy drum machines and meandering, centerless music. Although this isn’t unexplored territory for Coyne, Drozd, and company, Oczy Mlody never even attempts to reach the emotional hurdles of subtler works like The Terror or the strange score for their self-produced film Christmas on Mars. In some ways, it is as an exercise in stripping away everything that makes The Flaming Lips such a truly special group, leaving only that which serves as decorative tinsel to their music, hanging limp and lifelessly in the air.
It’s difficult to even parse out noteworthy moments of the album to examine because of how muddled and samey the whole thing feels — the music video for “Nidgy Nie (Never No)” might actually work as the most accurate summation of Oczy Mlody’s headspace, featuring the whole band lazily performing the track while muffled by a large blanket, slathered in just enough post-production effects to make the tedium seem vaguely shiny. Although Wayne Coyne’s lyrics have always been designed more for blunt effect than for close examination, on Oczy Mlody he really piles on the cheap imagery with constant allusions to unicorns, flowers, butterflies, and wizards, only ever making the broadest gestures at existential dread and the reckless abandon of youth. It seems that Coyne’s friendship with All-American turn-up icons Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha has rubbed off on his personal conceptions of the psychedelic experience, and where before the dosage of a Flaming Lips record was always left entirely to the listener’s discretion, Oczy Mlody bears the strange distinction of being the first time Coyne has ever blatantly sung a line like “Legalize it/ Every drug right now!” in earnest. As much as The Flaming Lips have always drawn plenty from the psychedelic drug aesthetic, until recently, it had always come with the disclaimer that “We don’t do them!,” a freeing statement that in its absence makes the band feel weirdly trapped, as if drugs really are starting to be the only driving inspirational force for the group.
None of this would be particularly unexpected or disappointing coming from a band whose earliest breakthroughs stretch all the way back to the early 90s, if it weren’t for the fact that the Lips have demonstrated again and again what restless creators they are. For every time the band has stumbled and lost their way over the years, they have come back even stronger and more aggressively boundary-pushing, continually finding new ways to reshape the collective despair of humanity into joyous, multicolored celebration. Oczy Mlody scans like a tossed off homework assignment, presenting less enthusiastic versions of things that this band has done before, and better. Although early on Coyne feebly makes a plea to “Kill your rock & roll, motherfuckin’ hip-hop sound!,” the most surprising moment on the album comes in its easygoing, punchy final track “We A Famly,” whose booming bass and sputtering drums make it a reasonable suggestion for what a Flaming Lips rap-rock hybrid could sound like. With any luck, Oczy Mlody is merely the end of one road for The Flaming Lips, and it won’t be too long before the band decides that it’s time for another reinvention.