The Flaming Lips have been in extra weird mode lately. After a trilogy of optimistic psychedelic pop albums which included The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War With the Mystics, they were starting to go a little stale. With 2009’s Embryonic they made a drastic change and returned to their noise rock roots. Since then they’ve continued in the direction of billowing experimentation and overall weirdness. In the last year they have released an EP inside of Gummy shaped fetus, recorded a 24-hour song and collaborated with musicians ranging from Chris Martin of Coldplay to Ke$ha to Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Their newest release, Record Store Day Exclusive The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, is a collaborative LP made up of different sessions from all sorts of expansively different musicians.
This album had every reason to fail. The assortment of musicians is seemingly too random and the question of whether the band themselves have gone off the deep end seems reasonable. Is it even possible for anything coherent to come out of collaboration with this hodgepodge of characters? The Flaming Lips and (their) Heady Fwends scream “YES!” The album is completely focused and creates new ground for the band and the collaborators. It doesn’t sound like a compilation of individual songs written by different people because it has a distinctive style, sound and theme.
Vocalist Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips have a distinct vision: the psychedelic doom and gloom of the end of the world. The songs are written in their current style, a progression from Embryonic, and they only use the collaborators’ talents where needed. Some of the contributors don’t make an extra effort to stand out. Bon Iver only echoes Coyne’s vocals on “Ashes In The Air” but he helps set the tone of the post-apocalyptic landscape. Ke$ha and Biz Markie take off running on album opener “2012” screaming about being caught in an acid haze while a robot voice repeats “You must be upgraded” and an electric thunderstorm crushes every beat. The album begins with the lost hope at the end and continues the exploration into psychedelic bleakness.
This is a place where everyone is having a bad trip. Jim James of My Morning Jacket appears on “That Ain’t My Trip,” a song with a disturbing pulsating beat and so much bass feedback it could make the bravest man scream in agony. “Children of the Moon” (featuring indie-rockers Tame Impala) captures the complete loneliness of outer space and while Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Helping the Retarded to Find God” is a clear-minded space-out, it still captures the view of the empty and lonely.
The album revolves around noise artist Lightning Bolt’s “I’m Working at NASA on Acid” as it showcases the major themes of the album. Beginning with an astronaut’s countdown it mesmerizes for a few minutes with a slow acoustic guitar before breaking into colorful psychedelic chaos. This is mission control at its worst, tripping on acid at the end of the world and sending a crew into space out of desperate hope. This is followed quickly by Yoko Ono’s “Do It!” which brings the dire urgency as if she is ultimately daring the end to finally arrive.
With all of these horrifying themes the band also contemplates death and dying. Chillwave artist Neon Indian contributes on “Is David Bowie Dying?” a song that was underwhelming when released on an EP in 2010 but in context with the rest of the Heady Fwends is a fitting addition. The album closes with a piano ballad featuring Chris Martin called “I Don’t Want You to Die.” Here Coyne quotes John Lennon’s “Imagine” but removes its political messages and uses it to express existential fear. “Imagine there’s no heaven/it’s easy if you try” is horrifying with the destruction of the planet; if this is the end of the world, what is next?
One of the main standout tracks is the cover of “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” with Erykah Badu. It is gorgeous in a floating about the planet queasiness sort of way. It is one of the only signs of hope on this destructive album, hinting that there still is love at the end of it all.
It is kind of unbelievable that The Flaming Lips have been making music for nearly 30 years. After all of this time they are still experimenting and breaking new ground. If you are ready for this noisy experimentation from one of our generation’s hardest working bands then you’ll love this. Due to its complicated and weird nature it is not an album for everyone. However, if you’re able to embrace the psychedelic dark side then this album will really freak you out in the best possible way.