At 45, Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has seen as much ugliness as anybody of his generation. Yet alt rock’s Captain Kangaroo keeps it cheerily surreal, a feat more impressive for how his musical positivity seems — like some sci-fi monster — to feed off of horror. The lushly affirmational The Soft Bulletin was inspired by watching his now-clean bandmate Steven Drozd disappear into heroin addiction. And as Coyne suggests in the notes to the retrospective Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, he owes his aesthetic worldview in part to an LSD freak-out at a fast-food drive-through window.
So you’d expect that, at this fucked-up moment in history, he’d have plenty of fuel. He does, and while At War With the Mystics is billed as a political record, it’s more concerned with what happens in the head than in the streets. The money shot is the ecstatically strange “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” — not a Karen O tribute (I don’t think), but a handclapping, munchkin-chanting, Peter Frampton talk-box-rocking Roman candle that wonders how absolutely corrupt anyone with absolute power would be, even you. This is a recurring issue: The single “The W.A.N.D.,” all Stooges guitar hurl and B-movie space noise, declares, “We got the power now, motherfuckers — that’s where it belongs!” You wonder: Does it?
At War is gnarlier and a bit less tuneful than the group’s previous two CDs. But the arrangements, and Dave Fridmann’s signature blend of clarity and overmodulation, remain intricately weird, from the fluty instrumental prog rock of “The Wizard Turns On…” to the Marvin GayemeetsEddie Rabbitt soul of “Mr. Ambulance Driver.” The latter, a ballad about waiting for help after an accident, has a touching video, in which a shirtless kid pop-locks happily while displaying his crippled left hand, which was mutilated in a car crash. It sort of sums up what the Lips have grown into: a power-of-positive-thinking cult for post-punk realists. Tony Robbins, watch your back.
See also: Grandaddy, Sumday (V2, 2003)