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SPIN Essentials

The Flaming Lips, ‘The Terror’ (Warner Bros.)

The fearless freaks in the Flaming LIps
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: April 16, 2013
Label: Warner Bros.

The Flaming Lips have never been shy about indulging themselves, but lately they’ve been on the kind of tear normally reserved for 13-year-old boys whose divorced parents have unlimited credit and unlimited guilt. Limited-edition EPs and bonus tracks thrown out into the wilderness of the Internet? Check. Guinness Record-breaking misadventures, just ’cause?  Check. Separately deployed six- and 24-hour songs? Check and check. Stunt collaborations? Absolutely. Nudity-filled videos? You know it.

Now, some of those tossed-off songs and collaborations were pretty great, and no doubt the gummy fetus tasted delicious. But all this unpredictable behavior was starting to get… predictable. The Lips have been attention-seeking troublemakers since they first burned out of ’80s Oklahoma, but when they finally got serious about their high-concept silliness (boom-box orchestras, cosplay-culture backup dancers), it initially felt like an inspired challenge to cred-obsessed, self-serious ’90s indie culture. But around the time of the Erykah Badu flap, even some of the band’s most dedicated fans began to worry that their heroes had become a gimmick factory that occasionally made music. Even multi-instrumentalist and de facto music director Steven Drozd seemed kinda burnt.

But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevancy. Just as the music industry began collapsing in earnest, the Lips started treating their albums as artistic loss leaders. Flush with advertiser cash and able to summon a trending topic at will, they no longer needed album sales to generate revenue or win fans, and were free to do whatever they wanted in the studio. Even more so than usual. And thus 2009’s Embryonic was a deep dive into free-range Kraftwerk grooves and in-the-red feedback screeches, a bold move in a career of bold moves that showed the band had very little interest in anything other than blowing their own minds. But even that felt like a mere warm-up for The Terror.

Obvious, it’s been a long, slow build for the Lips. After kicking around the indie-noise-punk scene for most of the 1980s, the boys broke through the MTV barrier in 1993, and then became critical darlings with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, a sharp rejoinder to the pre-millennial tension and post-Cobain malaise of late-’90s alternative culture, and an argument that hope and family were just as important song topics as whatever Radiohead were warbling about. Bono once described Achtung Baby as the sound of U2 chopping down The Joshua Tree; The Terror feels like what remains after The Soft Bulletin fades out and cruelly hardens. (Even the solitary-figure-awash-in-color cover schemes are similar.)

Guided by Drozd and perennial producer Dave Fridmann, the Flaming Lips have long been one of pop music’s chief maximalists, never content to merely put a violin on a song when they can make the damn thing sound like The Wizard of Oz personified. (Indeed, the chief failing of 2006’s drawn-out At War With the Mystics was that they seemed determined to win the Modern Rock Loudness Wars, no matter the cost.) But here, they strip things down with the relentlessness they once applied to piling things on. Every song on The Terror follows the same template: An oscillating synthesizer spirals outward for about five minutes, buttressed by insistent marbles-in-a-trash-compactor percussion, while snatches of guitar flare up for a few seconds then disappear amid Michael Ivins’ bass, which is more implied than felt. It all feels like one 60-minute song, which is a virtue (and certainly a much more reasonable proposition than the 24-hour one). But its true strength is a creeping sense of inevitability. These songs ooze forth like a slit wrist or that evil mud from Creepshow 2: They cannot be stopped, and before you know it, you’re consumed.

Philip Glass and Steve Reich are clear forefathers here, both demonstrating that the key to successful minimalism is squeezing the maximum amount of life out of each note. “Look…The Sun Is Rising” and “Try to Explain” start with simple, repetitive keyboard patterns that slowly ascend, eventually adding new whirs and waves as they glide along. This works on both a song and an album level: What starts as a dejected sigh eventually builds up to a black hole. (Just go ahead and ignore the tacked-on single/Super Bowl ad “Sun Blows Up Today,” which has no place here and clearly suggests that Warner Bros. was understandably nervous about the commercial prospects of this thing.)

Which is not to say that it’s all just one unreleting shade of black. “Be Free, in a Way” is the most atmospheric cloud here, while “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” is goosed by a polyrhythmic strut, and the title track revisits the Can clank of Embryonic. But even those moments feel like peaks and valleys in one long orchestral jaunt or DJ mix: The full downward spiral is more important than any one part. This is the real Comedown Machine.

The other major influence here? Suicide. Not the act, the band: The ’70s art-punk duo that played the Lips-co-curated 2009 edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties. “Frankie Teardrop,” Suicide’s best known song, is a rumbling swath of revolving keyboard shards that erupt into paranoid shrieks; The Terror swipes and adapts that approach. These songs slowly build to crescendos — a wordless, minutes-long stretch of “You Lust” sounds like a drunk dial from the Close Encounters of the Third Kind spaceship — but never offer much of an actual climax. That would be too easy for an album about difficult emotions. During the moments when most bands, including this one, would normally take a break from the despair with some sort of cathartic, triumphant flourish, Coyne sinks in deeper, his defeated voice becoming just another moan in the mix.

Yes, the guy may have bared all in the past, but he’s never been as naked as he is here, whether shooting down most of his previously stated ideas about getting through tough shit together on “You Are Alone” or failing to even muster the energy to “trying walking away… to nowhere, to no one” on “Try to Explain.” It’s a stunning turnaround for a man who seemed to take it upon himself to bolster the spirits of frazzled sensitive types the world over during the darkest days of the Iraq War, and even managed to make the inevitability of death sound comforting. The temptation to play critic-shrink here is just too great. Perhaps the weight of being an eternal cartoonish happy guy has worn on him; perhaps he can’t keep bringing himself to tell people to hold on amid near-endless military conflict and economic depression. But such armchair readings ultimately underestimate the necessity of The Terror.

Oklahoma’s finest have long presented themselves as psychedelic superheroes, but this feels like a comic-book narrative presented from the villain’s perspective, so we can better understand the motivation of Dr. Doom or Sylar or whomever, and why they represent such a formidable threat. By facing down the exhausting nature of depression and loneliness (seriously, Coyne sounds so depleted that he can barely muster the dejection to sing, and yes, that’s a compliment), the Lips have retroactively strengthened their entire artistic credo. This is the despair they’ve been fighting against for all these years. But instead of fighting to keep the hopelessness at bay, or frantically doing their best to distract us from it like they always have, here they just let it overtake them, and us. This album is cold and pitiless. The only comfort to be found is in the idea that once you’ve given up, nothing else can hurt you anymore. Or so you hope.

Consequently, nothing on The Terror exactly lends itself to confetti-cannon accompaniment, though they’ve already announced that their next album will be a full-length collaboration with Ke$ha, and before that they’ll probably release, like, a Merzbow collaboration encased in a gummy dildo or something. So it’s easy to speculate that this is less a permanent artistic about-face and more a case of the Lips proving something to themselves. Or maybe these daredevils get off on pushing the more outlandish aspects of their public persona to the point where they’re a glittery pubic hair’s breadth away from being written off as self-parodies. But write them off at your peril. As long as they can occasionally make their self-indulgence sound this bold, Coyne deserves all the toys he can get.