The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics.
I first got "At War With the Mystics" about a month ago, as an advance download. At that point, I wasn’t really all that into it. I’d heard "Mr. Ambulance Driver" a few months earlier, when it was released on the soundtrack to "The Wedding Crashers", and at that time I loved it. But I think what was really putting me off of "At War With The Mystics", on first listen, was the opening track. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" has a lot of repetitive chanting throughout, and that kind of thing grates on my nerves quicker than I think it even bothers most people. It was enough to make me think of the album as annoying and lame, and find myself not wanting to put it on. However, reading a book about The Flaming Lips made me want to listen to everything by them, even the new record, so I ended up giving it another chance. And lo and behold, around the fourth or fifth listen, I found myself really liking it.
One thing that’s been said a lot about "At War With the Mystics", at least when I’ve discussed it with friends (I haven’t really read any reviews), is that it’s uneven. And there’s no denying this–it is an uneven record. Separate even from any discussion of unified quality, the record is uneven due to the fact that it jumps wildly all over the place in terms of style. The first three tracks are a microcosm of the entire album where this is concerned. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", despite the frequent chants, is actually quite good. Once I got used to the chanting, it seemed less annoying and more catchy, albeit catchy on a level that can be too much. It has the same kind of cloying effect at first that a commercial jingle can, where it sticks in your head despite all efforts at getting it out. But really, this is appropriate for the song, which is bouncy and happy in the same manner as a showtune–though the instrumentation of the song makes it much heavier, more like Queen or Bowie-ish glam-power-pop. It’s something new for the Flaming Lips, and what’s interesting is the fact that this super-catchy jingle of a song is augmented by lyrics that also do something new for the Flaming Lips. "If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich, would you do it?" vocalist Wayne Coyne asks, and the "yeah yeah yeah" chorus responds in the affirmative. "If you could watch everybody work while you just laid on your back, would you do it?" When the chorus comes around, the question becomes more general, "With all your power, what would you do?" The next verse flips the script: Wayne now asks "If you could know all the answers and reveal them to the masses, would you do it?" Now the chorus is not so eager, responding "no no no" to this and other similar questions. Without being heavy-handed, The Flaming Lips are making a serious comment on human nature in the world today, about our tendencies to deride others for using power in selfish ways, but at the same time being unwilling to make whatever small changes we have the power to make in our own lives. It’s not too hard to draw parallels to the fact that less than half of the eligible American citizens actually vote in any given election, yet plenty of those same people are full of complaints about the decisions our government makes.
The next song, "Free Radicals", is totally different from "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" musically, even as it carries on lyrically with some of the same concepts. This song is based on a funky bass/keyboard part, over which Wayne does his best Prince/Rick James falsetto soul singer impersonation. "You think you’re radical, but ... in fact, you’re fanatical," Wayne chides, but it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s singing in that voice. Song three, on the other hand, is totally serious. "The Sound of Failure" harks back to some of the more affecting songs on the more recent Flaming Lips albums. The music is melancholy yet beautiful orchestral pop of the sort that we’ve come to expect from the Lips in recent years, complete with flute trills on the chorus and swelling mellotron strings in the background throughout. The lyrics fit with this melancholy beauty, telling the story of a woman who’s trying to make peace with the death of a loved one, and finds herself unable to relate to happy pop songs about love that she hears on the radio. Wayne expresses this in the straightforward manner that he’s used to talk about intense emotions on other Flaming Lips songs, most famously "Do You Realize". "Go tell Britney and Gwen that she’s not trying to go against them," he says. "She’s just too scared, and she can’t pretend to understand what it means to be dead. It’s just a sound running through your head that can go on and on...."
One thing that I’ve realized, or I guess remembered, while listening to so many Flaming Lips albums over the past week or so, is that their music is some of the most emotionally affecting I’ve ever heard in my life. Wayne Coyne is someone who is obsessed with honesty and sincerity, which is something I can relate to, and his lyrics about the emotional struggles one goes through in day to day living are as real as anything else I’ve ever heard or read. This blog often revolves around my own emotional connections with music, and the fact that I have an even more intense connection with the Flaming Lips than with most of the other bands I write about in here really says something. I’ve said it many times before, but I’m a raw nerve where my emotions are concerned. I’m sure to most of the kids that know me and hang out with me on a regular basis, I don’t seem that much different than anyone else where my emotions are concerned, but when I’m alone, I cry a lot more often than I’d really like to admit, especially in reaction to music. Truthfully, the only way I can get through most Flaming Lips albums without crying multiple times is by not paying much attention to them. "The Sound of Failure" is pretty much guaranteed to reduce me to tears every time I hear it, especially with its evocative coda, subtitled "It’s Dark... Is It Always This Dark?" The transition between the main portion of the song and this long ending segment comes when almost everything drops out except for flute and the echoing, distorted voice of a woman speaking the title phrase. She sounds scared, and the music is ominous as well, though less in the spooky manner of a horror movie and more in it’s evocation of a lonely hilltop at night, with the stars shining above and all around, reminding you of how tiny you are and how little difference you make in the world. The chirp of crickets echoes occasionally, but for the most part this section of the song is dominated not by music but by the emptiness the sparsely played, reverb-drenched keyboards evoke. Listening to this song at night in a dark room would surely tear me to pieces.
"Mr. Ambulance Driver", which appears later in the album, also creates a mood of melancholy, as it tells the story of a man who has been in a car accident and now sits, only superficially hurt, next to his lover, who is far more grievously injured, and who he fears will die before she receives treatment. The song is a plea from the man to trade places with her, to give his life in exchange for hers. The music is jazzy and keyboard-driven, almost a ballad, which is not something I’ve really heard from the Lips before. It features a bizarrely catchy chorus, in light of the sad words, but it’s probably the best candidate for a single here.
The unevenness rears its head again within a single song, "It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Bright", which immediately precedes "Mr. Ambulance Driver" on the album. "It Overtakes Me", is a goofy three-minute funk romp, featuring the lines "it master/slaves me, it wakes and bakes me", and the transition into "Mr. Ambulance Driver" would be extremely clunky without the second half of the song. As it is, "It Overtakes Me" slides directly into "The Stars Are So Bright", in which Wayne’s voice floats dreamily on a bed of synth washes before the whole thing ends with a pleasant finger-picked acoustic guitar. This slides perfectly into "Mr. Ambulance Driver", though the combination of these two songs into one is just as incongruous as the "It Overtakes Me"/"Mr. Ambulance Driver" transition would have been. Yet somehow, it works.
In fact, that’s what I missed the first few times through this album, the thing that’s really saved it for me. "At War With The Mystics" is uneven; gloriously so, in fact. If there is unity here, it’s in the fact that everything The Flaming Lips do musically ultimately sounds like The Flaming Lips. Their personality as a band is so strong that it allows for extreme detours within their own sound. If this whole record had been just like "The Sound of Failure" or "Mr. Ambulance Driver", I might have been totally into it from moment one, but it would in the end have had a lot less to offer to me as a listener. As it is now, I’m sure I’ll still be picking up on new details hidden within this album for a long time to come.