The anxiety that besets the American mind grows. Last year’s failed apocalypse begat no relief — no transcendent awakening, no cathartic collapse. There may be no escape from decline. How do you reckon with that knowledge? We still have recourse to the not yet (and hopefully never) obsolete salves of apathy and comedy, but these are approaches, not gods or destinies. Their potency might soothe the dread of unfolding crises, but they cannot strike at the root of the problem. But what happens in times when our most powerful cure has become useless? The Terror claims that even love has become powerless, that this dread finally reveals an abyss lurking in all of us.
Bad vibes. The Flaming Lips have flirted with with them for a lengthy career. Remember Clouds Taste Metallic: “With loving smiles, and their mouths are stretched so wide they can’t even take a breath/ Knowing evil will prevail/ And the magic bullet is the glowing mother ship/ And the mother zaps you dead.” Spiderbites and strychnine, needles and disintegration. But once, there was hope. In the majority of their work, they’ve always seemed to find some small possibility of victory, whether in Yoshimi, black belt in karate, bulwark against the tragic consequences of an evil robot victory; in the victorious dreams of “Bad Days;” in the slight comfort of irony towards the chintzy icons that adorn our dashboard; or in “The Gash’s” last volunteer battling on. The Terror offers no out. When the sun rises on the opening track, it’s not the dawn of a beautiful new morning. “Be Free, A Way” is pretty clear on the matter: “The sun shines down/ But we’re still cold/ Its light is not a light that shines.” We had hope that the “little spaceship hiding in the clouds” on “Look… The Sun is Rising” might save us, but, as it turns out, that’s the magic bullet conspiracy theory mothership, spitting out a message of mind control. It’s a drone, and it’s not watching us because it’s curious about human civilization. It wants us to love it, because that’s how it keeps you in line.
But I thought we realized that the sun doesn’t go down? Isn’t that sunrise just as much an illusion?
“We are all standing alone/ The terror’s in our heads/ We don’t control the controls.” Fuck, Wayne, really? After the gummy vaginas, after the musical strobe lights, after the salvos of the confetti canons, after the 24-hour Halloween marathon and the fleshy hulk hands like air traffic control beacons, yes, even after the giant inflatable crowdsurfing ball, the Lips conceived this incredible downer? The Terror’s loveless lyrics are stripped bare; we’re lucky to get one damn spaceship and two mentions of eyeballs. A single insect lives on this record, and it shows up to make you cry (and not because of happiness). Gone are the buzzing bugs combing your hair, gone are the watermelon guns shooting love-consciousness, gone are the giraffes that wouldn’t take skin off your back. Instead, Coyne delivers the starkest simplicities: “Try to explain why you’ve changed/ I don’t think I understand.” I’m not sure I do either.
Bandmates Drozd, Ivins, Scurlock, and Brown aren’t much help. The Terror gurgles with thick synth textures, but they feel more Pink Floyd than “Fight Test.” Bright synth saws peek through hazy guitar lines, a light without warmth. Minor keys, choppy synth blasts, slow, tense melodies abound. Even Michael Ivins’ usually punchy, upbeat bass lines have become a mumbling drone on “Turning Violent.” Guitar lines are not pleasantly fuzzy; they’re harsh and metallic. Scurlock’s drums drive and insist. There is no relief. At best, by the end of “Always There… In Our Hearts,” we follow the Lips into an aggressive, Dionysian joy past both pain and love. It’s not that love is gone, but that it’s useless in the face of terror. The race for the prize ends in vain: there is no cure.
The Terror may be The Flaming Lips’ most concise statement to date. But it’s not clear whether they’re at the deep end of an oscillation or whether this is the logical end of all their work. There are few moments when love triumphs in the absurd back catalog, and when it appeared, Coyne always met it with questions and doubt. The Terror feels like certainty. It offers no hope but in terror: terror as joy beyond all reckoning, a junction of both fear and love, a purity that pours onto us after transgression. Coyne claims in the lengthy press material for the album that “the joy of life will not be at its zenith,” that we must “go all the way in” where we sense decay and smell shit, or “sit on the sidelines and watch.” The greatest pain and the greatest joy might indeed be linked, or at least one may need to risk one for the rewards of the other. Don’t listen to this record hoping for new age tones of healing or a jubilant finale. “Sometimes what looks like the sunrise turns out to be an atom bomb,” they said long ago. You will find no comedy here. Violence is always threatening, and the paranoia only deepens. But if you want to know what happens when the band that wrote “She Don’t Use Jelly” finally abandons all hope and steps willingly into the darkness, here it is.