The universe tends toward disarray. Stars explode. Planets collide. Singers in white suits douse themselves in fake blood. The Flaming Lips understand this sloppy state of affairs and have spent the past 25 years gleefully dealing with the mess, first encouraging it as acid-stuffed punks and then, for the past decade, coming to terms with it as the mainstream’s warmly philosophical psych-pop freaks of choice.
Now, though, singer Wayne Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins, and drummer Kliph Scurlock have surveyed the dirty dishes piling up in the sink of existence and are responding with a collective “fuck it.” Embryonic contains the band’s coldest, darkest, slipperiest, least organic work yet. There are no sweet choruses to soothe us. No experimental joy to get us through the weird parts. No teenage Japanese heroine to save us.
Did I mention it’s a double album?
Yet, despite the black-hole vibe — and especially following 2006’s stiff, somewhat predictable At War With the Mystics — Embryonic works. In pre-release interviews, Coyne has described the new music as “Miles Davis meets Joy Division.” He’s not far off. The spooky, aqueous one-chord keyboard vamps and roiling bass lines of Bitches Brew are everywhere, reaching bad juju perfection on the seven-minute “Powerless,” which climaxes with a gnarled guitar solo that sounds like Dick Dale forgetting how to play. Elsewhere, Coyne’s thousand-yard-stare vocals and the brittle keyboard of “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and “See the Leaves” partake of Unknown Pleasures‘ death-trip seduction. The singer’s dour sloganeering — his admission on “Silver Trembling Hands” that “Nature makes us all compete” is what passes for a hopeful message — comes off as an indirect Ian Curtis homage. Meanwhile, on the droning “Sagittarius Silver Announcement,” where he intones, “We can be free to be slaves now,” his sepulchral Curtis impression is unmistakable.
But this band of bunny costumes and giant bubbles hasn’t completely abandoned good feelings. It just doesn’t let them be. “The Impulse” conjures a sexy Quiet Storm groove but cloaks its melody under a vocoder. Karen O pops up on the playful “I Can Be a Frog,” aping Coyne’s own mentions of jungle animals with impressions of the same, but her contribution was recorded on scratchy voicemail. She sounds like a ghost. (MGMT are on the album too, but good luck finding them.)
In the past, as on 2002’s “Do You Realize??,” the band leavened its sour news with sweet music. Not here. Only a very misanthropic baby cold fall asleep to the disquieting lullabies of “Evil” and “If,” both of which adopt futility as their lyrical outlook. And while there are sections where the playing heats up, Dave Fridmann’s strangely isolating production, the disorienting bass-heavy mix, and Scurlock’s wild drum spooging sucks the humanity out of the musical mise-en-scene, leaving behind the creepy, Philip K. Dickian thrill of eavesdropping on an android’s nightmare.
Two discs, bum trips, and not even an accidental hook. Thank jeebus that a nonplatinum major-label act still gets to do such a thing. And also give thanks that the Flaming Lips are the ones who did. Embryonic finds these wild-eyed Okies sounding even more adventurous and less eager to please than at any time since 1997’s four-CD experimental sonic goof, Zaireeka. But it’s a backward victory. I’ll probably listen to this album again when I’m very high, very sad, or both. Till then.
WATCH: The Flaming Lips, “I Can Be a Frog”