The Flaming Lips Embryonic

[Warner Bros.; 2009]

Styles: psychiatric explorations of the fetus with needle
Others: Butthole Surfers, Boredoms

Ambition is a tricky thing. For The Flaming Lips, it’s the only thing — the mood through which their music is born and the reason for making it in the first place. It has forged a career that’s become increasingly consistent as they perfect their folk-musicians-in-outer-space style. Despite any questionable moments in their career, the group’s God-complex has also given us some absurdly frenetic performances: Clouds Taste Metallic, The Soft Bulletin and, now, the double album Embryonic, a work that could only be created by veterans, but feels like the music of a hungry, excited new band trying to hit the big time. The Flaming Lips are at their strongest tight-rope-walking the line between ambition and audacity. Embryonic not only walks that line, but also seems to construct it as the album blasts along.

From out of nowhere, “Convinced of the Hex,” a murky, sinister funk song, opens the album. “That’s the difference between us,” singer Wayne Coyne yelps over the syncopated rhythm of the song’s distant instrumentation. Yes, the difference between The Lips and other bands — the current manifestation of The Lips and their previous work — is that the group has managed to seamlessly reconcile their lo-fi roots with their present grandiosity, creating a massive sound that works its way quietly into your head. “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” continues this bizarre mix of funk, science fiction, and folk: a throbbing bass line, wah pedals, military drum beat, and Coyne’s moaning, double-tracked vocals, transcending above all the blips and beeps of the music. It feels recognizable — it could be no other band than The Flaming Lips you are listening to — but that sound, that somehow naturally synthetic style, hardly feels familiar.

The instrumental “Aquarius Sabotage” demonstrates something sinister lurking beneath the surface of the music. Through a combination of obscure electronics with analog sound sources, most notably an ethereal harp and a bridge guided by a string section that could have easily been arranged by Phil Spector in 1963, The Lips create a sort of literal representation of what they have accomplished on this album sonically: a perfection of their style, tweaked so that it sounds like you’re hearing it for the first time. The harp, the string section -- they sound as if they’re dying while you listen, like they're killing themselves in order to exist.

In its middle third, however, the album loses steam. “See the Leaves,” with its fairly obvious musings on the perennial death of nature, replicates the morose funk of the opening, but the swirling, single-note melody meanders cyclically. It’s one way of making form reflect content, but it’s tedious. Elsewhere, “IF” and “Gemini Syringes” are like hushed whispers, yet the respite they offer from the louder moments is hardly welcome: their softness becomes lost in the album’s almost incessant climaxes.

The final half of the album contains the plateau of high points. “The Ego’s Last Stand,” with the bass overpowering all other noise, and Coyne’s frightened mumblings to “destroy yourself” becomes a different song halfway through: with crashing cymbals, massive guitars, and Coyne's most intense vocals of his career, the song is the highlight of the nearly 75-minute long album. It sounds like The Flaming Lips starting to take themselves seriously over the course of the song — indeed, they sound like a band rather than a performance piece. It would be hard to imagine Coyne dancing over his audience in his famous translucent ball while singing this song; there’s nothing but seriousness here.

“The Ego’s Last Stand” is metonymic for the work as a whole. Even the nursery rhyme of “I Can Be A Frog” — with Coyne saying all the different animals some anonymous friend (played by Karen O) has told him she can be — is nightmarish. “It seems like she can be anything — any kind of creature she wants to be,” he sings, and he sounds as if he wishes it weren’t true. The fantasy of Coyne’s songwriting has matured to a point on Embryonic where it feels natural — somber, even.

It’s tempting to call the album a “classic” — to place it in a genealogy with like-mindedly ambitious double albums like The Beatles, Exile on Main Street, or Physical Graffiti. But Embryonic, designed in part to be an unfocused free-for-all, reaches its plateau early and, aside from a few — frighteningly few — underdeveloped songs, never really comes down again. There is a shocking amount of really good music here, yet the absence of highs and lows makes for a fairly unmemorable "album experience" — all the songs start blending together. But in the end, what The Flaming Lips have accomplished with Embryonic is impossible to ignore: an ambitious double album in an age where the single is making a comeback, a collection of music that makes a 25-year-old band sound vital and new.

1. Convinced of the Hex
2. The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine
3. Evil
4. Aquarious Sabotage
5. See The Leaves
6. IF
7. Gemini Syringes
8. Your Bats
9. Powerless
10. The Ego’s Last Stand
11. I Can Be A Frog
12. Sagitarrius Silver Announcement
13. Worm Mountain
14. Scorpio Sword
15. The Impulse
16. Silver Trembling Hands
17. Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast
18. Watching The Planets

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