The Flaming Lips
At War With the Mystics
(Warner Bros.; 2006)
By Dom Sinacola & Matt Stephens | 5 September 2007
Upon a dusky crepuscule, Dom Sinacola and Matt Stephens, united despite international strife, attend a listening party for the Flaming Lips’s 12th LP, At War With the Mystics. Once inside the confines of a prenatal coffee shop, the music (alternately assuaging and befuddling) plays in loops. Between “Goin’ On’s” second and “Yeah Yeah Yeah’s” third go-round, Dom, sweating profusely, his eyes screaming from his skull, dilated pupils shuddering, stands and begins to rant. Matt, sobered by the intransigence of the band and by the lack of hallucinogens in his stomach, records Dom’s brief apoplexy only to mask his embarrassment and to later show Dom the value of restraint. What follows are Matt’s notes on Dom’s vitriol; a confounding mix of anger, windbagginess, violence, drugs, cantankerous jealousy, heart, and dolphins awaits.
“Look at you all. Enraptured. You mewling sheep! You fawning fuckwits! Can’t we just admit that Dave Fridmann is the only one worth praising here? We are not among philosopher kings or dealing with poignant reflections on mortality, on love, on nuclear war, on agitprop brainwashing…”
What Dom continues to ignore, repeatedly lambasting the Lips, is that much of their popularity and accessibility derived, initially, from allowing patient, gargantuan pop symphonies — operatic tendencies, dramatic heft disguised in simple, innocent terms — to creep into mainstream consciousness. There seemed to be no pretension at hand, and since pretension often makes people uncomfortable, the Flaming Lips were accepted, forging new alliances. Their lyrics, daringly terse, jocular, and inane, became as singular as Coyne’s voice. Or Drozd’s heroin spiderbite.
Worth more note: Fridmann is not the only mastermind behind Mystics’ studio alchemy. Coyne and Co. play the boards as well as you may expect: any band with a history as digitally-obsessed as theirs should be given due admiration. Even though Dom seems to paint the band as a cadre of lackeys below Fridmann’s obvious and subtle Genius, his intention makes sense; the disconnect between the focus of a composition and the execution of tweaked bells and whistles has never been so painful to hear in a Lips album as it is here.
“No, you sit down, ass clown…ya see? What I just said was better than anything Wayne Coyne could ever pen. Second only to Rivers Cuomo as the worst lyricist of our generation. I’ve heard more pressing prose come out of Zach Braff’s turgid ego! Fuck you, turgid’s a word. You shut up.”
Lyrics are a busy obsession for Dom. It’s hard to necessarily fault Coyne for his incessantly empty cadence-holders and dumb end rhyme. The band’s stayed true to their purpose at least, raising skeletons of ideas from insular meticulousness, raising terror from sunshine production. But you can fault the man for such boners as, “Every time you state your case / The more I want to punch your face,” and then, “I go: doodoo doodoo doodoo doodoo,” drooling into his soul patch, and so on. The politically bumbling “The W.A.N.D.” is another example of lyrical tripe. As are AWWM’s two openers. Unfortunately, the result is that the collected libretto of this album features the worst words of the Lips’s career. Even the album’s title and track names are significantly less obtuse and fascinating than all other efforts.
“Why are the sirens at the beginning of the song? They fade out then return after Wayne’s already waited with baited breath. But the ambulance was just there! Probably in the street! Why didn’t you hop on then, Wayne??? A life’s in the balance! I hate you and your lack of continuity so much!”
This makes sense. It’s a minor aspect of the song, though. And the song itself is notable for being one of the few on the album left without too many distracting orchestral flourishes. It’s one of the better tracks here, but it’s still marred by another of Coyne’s ridiculous meditations on death, piling on the clichés (“for everyone that dies someone new is born”) like a wide-eyed high school kid who’s just read the introductory chapter to his World Religions text book.
“Even more, whatever thematic consistency existed on Yoshimi or Soft Bulletin is completely absent here. Or just so vague and bloated that the sentiment’s useless. It didn’t stop them from hiding behind fat production then, but now it just underscores how much their melody and accessibility relies on Fridmann’s imagination.”
This LP comes packaged as a conceptless concept album. Perhaps Yoshimi or Soft Bulletin doomed the Lips to expectations without warrant. The hop-scotch subjects of Mystics throw unifying duties to the songwriting and melodies, which shirk responsibility to production, which then place in sharp contrast the studio mastery versus the failure of the arrangements to do anything but gild weak constructions. Or maybe this just is another concept album. At any rate, the themes seem to sprout from two pretty predictable models: more from Coyne’s bottomless well of empty spiritual navel-gazing, or from equally shallow political pandering care of dudes who should be way too old to excuse lyrical kidney stones like, “You think you’re radical, but in fact you’re fanatical.”
“I’m still gonna go ahead and assume that ‘W.A.N.D.’ has something to do with ‘W.M.D.’ Both are illusionary ways of gaining credit amongst their specific communities.”
The correlation is weak, at best, but such is Dom’s fault. Some of our stoner compatriots, thought to have been asleep, raised their heads to grumble something about “motherfucking Bush,” then slump back in their bean bag chairs, entranced. Dom glares, and continues to sweat.
“‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’: dumb. ‘Free Radicals’: dumb. ‘Haven’t Got A Clue’: petulant, soulless turd. ‘The Wizard Turns On…’: too obvious a Pink Floyd ape to really even justify my rage. ‘Pompeii’: OK, the only satisfying song here. Almost every track is bent on a repetitive riff caped by silk escutcheons. Or, the whole deal completely shifts directions, right when you expect it to hit that fork in the road, signaled by a forward slash in the track title, a Burt Bacharach addendum, and a thin guitar solo or woolen bass stomp. The whole thing is surface. Serrr-fisssss. Surface, surface, surface… Oh shit, why are my pants wet?”
Dom had by now become a liability, as he’d already caused a nasty enough ruckus with the management that I had to go to the counter to ask for paper towel to clean the bong water off of his jeans. Certainly, though, he had a point. AWWM, as with every other record in the Lips’ catalogue, is deeply, proudly dumb, and listening to a man in his forties address Society and the Great Unknown with such naivete can make one’s eyes roll. But where that was once the Lips’ biggest boon – the Big Ideas pondered in nursery school language – here it sounds, for the first time, like a shtick. The touching stupefaction of “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” or “Fight Test” is drawn on ad nauseam on AWWM, and it now sounds almost cynical, as if the band is mockingly satiating their fans’ desire for bumper sticker existentialism.
The whole thing is surface, and the surface is as eye-poppingly lovely as any album I’ve heard this year, but the surface trumps the songs themselves virtually every single time. As a result, an album that may sound dense and beguiling at first listen runs out of things to show you the second or third run-thru, making the flaws inherent in Coyne’s lazy songwriting and too-familiar melodies painfully clear.
“Go tell Britney and go tell Gwen that Uncle Wayne’s got a safe pocket of funk for ‘em… I dunno, Smith? Just tell them that the beautiful flute squiggle is strangled by grating guitar snark and that harmonizing actually involves developing a harmony and that that one guy who used to be on Blue’s Clues has actually superseded his idols and needs a couch on which to crash… nothing fancy, a blanket maybe… No, what’re you talking about??”
By this point, Dom was pacing around the room, vainly trying to make eye contact with whomever he could, but the only response he got was from a dreadlocked teenaged girl in the back corner who curtly told him, “Steve Burns, asshole.” I just tried to keep my head down.
“‘My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion’ simultaneously epitomizes, celebrates, and shits on every Lips effort that’s come before. And not in a condescending, powerful-type God On Man Shit, but the kind that’s wet, noisy, and not capitalized. Eh? Oh, real classy…No, you are.”
Titularly loyal, the song, a tribute to Yoshimi’s post-prog-ambio-pop more than a seemingly discarded B-side, is divided equally between stardust and squelching, extended climax. It’s one of the better cuts here, if only because Coyne’s vocal melody and tone is so reminiscent of so many similar sylvan outcries in the Lips catalog. “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung” is the apotheosis of every intention in “Autumn” or “Vein of Stars” or the coda of track 7, and, therefore, makes each harrowingly incomplete in comparison.
“The Lips believe what they need to believe and write around that. Did they make a hallmark album of the 90’s? They were told they did. Don’t they put on a fucking show? It’s a circus alright. Does their infuriatingly simplistic philosophizing allow a subversive, drugtopian malaise to pervade popular culture? Sure! These things matter, and so now we have a shell of a new LP, an empty Return to a sound the Lips were just told they defined.”
This is a half truth. While much of AWWM does indeed tread water, its greatest failings come with the stylistic side-steps the band takes in funkified tracks like “Free Radicals” and “It Overtakes Me.” Coyne’s affected yelp of “say WHAAAT??!!” in the former caused more than a few raised eyebrows (and, on Dom’s end, incoherent profanity) amongst the patrons, and Dom and I spent most of its three and a half minutes staring at each other, aghast at the gruesome aural spectacle. This traditional mutiny, all in the guise of a protest song so contemptibly infantile it practically made me want to drop by a recruiting station on my way home.
“The Flaming Lips have successfully forfeited their relevance to modern pop music. What? No. Get your hands off me!”
I’m not sure if a band or artist can forfeit their past as an influence of so many current musical trends and attitudes, but the Lips have proven that they no longer continue in that vein. This album, weighed by windy genre excursions and one idiotic noise after another, is relevant to the Lips canon as both a Culmination of Missteps and as a sign that, at least, the band’s not letting up.
“Please, just let me hear this again. I promise I’ll be quiet…That goddamn diamond in the rough, stippled, sly ragga beat, then a synth and flute — prog-euphony of the verse, I don’t care what they’re saying, that’s the only fantastic melody here, one of few melodies, the only good thing I can say ‘good thing’ about in this heap — and god forbid the electronic screwery only shows as a searing second half. ‘Pompeii’ is good because it relies on nothing but deft and exciting songwriting. It’s complete, and maybe this is why you’re all here, agog at this shit. Maybe I’m terrible ashamed of myself.”
By this time I was fed up. Three times through the album, and all I could hear was juvenile, idealistic nonsense sung by a creepy old acid-head who sounded like he had pneumonia. I hated it; hated all the dime-store ruminations on mortality, hated the tacked-on song suites, hated the diversionary symphonic ornaments that tried to distract me from the core shittiness of the songs, hated all those weak fucking melodies I’d already heard on Yoshimi anyway. “Pompeii” was probably my favorite song, but I figured that probably had something to do with the fact that the vocals were mixed down low enough that I couldn’t make out the words. I was done with the Flaming Lips. I was never even going to listen to The Soft Bulletin again. I wanted to punch Wayne Coyne in the mouth. Just as I was about leap to my feet and launch a perspirated diatribe of my own, I saw the shop manager approaching Dom (in much the same way a poacher might sneak up on an irate Grizzly), and I knew our time had come. I stuffed my pen and paper away and let out a long sigh.
After “Goin’ On” concludes for the third time, Dom is ejected from the establishment because he breaks his promise. Matt follows quietly into the street, a folded piece of notebook paper covered with notes and Dom’s paroxysms in his back pocket. Then, under an ominous street lamp, on common ground — brothers created from the copulation of Expectation and Irrationality, from Relativism and Superlative — the two young men shake hands and hug, possibly exhausted, bound, at least, by the agreement that At War With the Mystics is some pile of entertaining crap.