Where To Start With… The Flaming Lips
The three years that have elapsed since The Flaming Lips released their last proper studio album – 2013’s hugely underrated The Terror - have been pretty weird ones for the band, even by the standards of a group for whom weirdness has become something of a hallmark.
That’s not to say that Wayne Coyne and co. have been unproductive, in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Less than a year after The Terror’s arrival the band unleashed their Sgt. Pepper tribute record With A Little Help From my Fwends, a track-by-track recreation of The Beatles’ most famous album featuring a menagerie of guests that included amongst its bulging ranks the likes of My Morning Jacket, Phantogram, Moby, Dinosaur Jr. mainman J Mascis and, perhaps strangest of all, Miley Cyrus - more on her in a minute.
Then followed Imagene Peise: Atlas Eets Christmas, billed on its release as a Christmas-themed album by a young Iraqi piano-playing prodigy who took her own life on 1978 before her music could be discovered – and who then turned out to be completely fictional. Instead, the album was actually a ‘secret’ festive record masterminded by The Lips’ multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd.
By the end of the same year the band had still found time for one more project, a single 24-hour composition named 24 Hour Song Skull, limited to a run of 13 copies, each of which was contained on a memory stick and delivered to its new owner embedded in an actual, human skull.
2015 brought even more weirdness in the form of that Miley Cyrus connection we mentioned earlier, the band having apparently found some unlikely common ground with the former Hannah Montana star. There followed a collaborative album by the name of Miley and her Dead Petz, as well as plenty of touring together, including a planned concert to be performed completely naked by both Cyrus and the band, for the purposes of a music video.
By the beginning of last year, the band were limbering up to head back into the studio and with all the shenanigans of the past three years, it was difficult to know exactly what to expect from a new Flaming Lips album proper.
The answer, as it turns out, is Oczy Mlody. As you might expect after all the band’s escapades over the previous months, 2016 seems to have represented a bit of a comedown and, judging from some of his lyrics, Wayne Coyne is clearly feeling it a bit. The starkest example of this can be heard as he vents his exasperation for the social and political shifts of the last few months in ‘How?’: “White trash rednecks, earthworms eat the ground / Legalise it, every drug right now”.
But it’s not all headaches and heartbreak – there’s hope on offer here too. The message behind ‘Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)’ is almost self-explanatory from its title alone and by the time the album winds its way to ‘We A Family’, featuring a guest appearance from – yep, Miley Cyrus again – the mood is pretty close to being one of euphoria.
If you’ve always found The Flaming Lips a little difficult to get your head around, Oczy Mlody is unlikely to make that task any easier, but for those already in love with the weird world of Wayne Coyne and co this album does contain some brilliant moments and plenty of standout tunes.
If you’re new to The Flaming Lips but like the sound of the madness they leave in their wake, here are five highlights from their long and unusual career to get you started…
‘She Don’t Use Jelly’
If there’s any such thing in The Flaming Lips’ extensive back catalogue as a breakthrough song, it’s probably this. Featured on their fifth album Transmission from the Satellite Heart, ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ is a wonky, fuzzy slice of brilliance that earned the band quite a bit of airplay and while they had really begun garnering critical acclaim since their 1990 album In a Priest Driven Ambulance, this was perhaps an early turning point in the band’s commercial popularity.
‘Christmas at the Zoo’
Although they released their first album as long ago as 1986, The Flaming Lips have always been a highly experimental band and this has made them a tricky prospect to nail down since their inception, but by 1995 they were really beginning to solidify their sonic identity and of all the tracks on their superb 1995 offering Clouds Taste Metallic, this is the song that hints most strongly at the band’s future direction.
‘Race for The Prize’
With its sweeping, orchestral synth melodies and towering, lush production, the first track on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin is one heck of an opening salvo, setting the tone for one of The Flaming Lips' most beguiling albums to date. One of the record’s more uplifting moments along with songs like ‘Buggin’', this is up there with their very best.
‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part 1)’
The title track from one of their finest albums, this song released in 2002 sets the scene for the album’s central concept based around a character living in a fantastical world and dealing with the themes of mortality and deception. Although it has been debated whether or not Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is really a true concept album, there were plans to create a musical based on the album and at one point West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin was attached to direct, but he and the band soon parted company and the project developed into a broader idea featuring songs from both this and other Flaming Lips albums.
One of the best moments on their 2006 album At War with the Mystics and featuring arguably their best ever guitar riffs, 'The W.A.N.D.' (or The Will Always Negates Defeat) features Wayne Coyne ruminating on the never-changing nature of the political landscape (“Time after time, those fanatical minds try to rule all the world”) over a hypnotically funky drum groove, this is one of the record’s real bangers and it remains a staple of their weird and wonderful live shows a decade on from its release.