Thursday, January 19, 2017

album review: 'oczy mlody' by the flaming lips

So here's a fun question: when did you stop liking The Flaming Lips?

A bit of a bizarre question to start things off, but if you take a look at the output of this band since the 2000s, you slowly start coming to the realization that Wayne Coyne seems to be taking steps to alienate pretty much everybody. Was in the late 90s with Zaireeka, an album designed to be played on four separate sound systems simultaneously? Was it in 2006 with At War With The Mystics, the Grammy award-winning step that tends to be regarded as a dip in quality coming after their stronger work around the turn of the millennium? Was it the 2009 dive into nightmares of Embryonic, or their full-length cover of Pink Floyd's entire The Dark Side Of The Moon the same year? Was it the massive collaboration in 2012 that called up everyone from Nick Cave and Bon Iver to Chris Martin and Kesha? Or was it The Terror, a more subtle brand of nightmare fuel in 2013 that might be one of the most bleak cuts of nihilistic existential horror ever made? Or was it the full, track-for-track cover of Sgt. Pepper's in 2014 that recruited everyone from Foxygen and Dr. Dog to Tegan And Sara and Miley Cyrus? Or was all the collaborative work they did on Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, an album for which you could make the argument is one of the worst records of the decade? Or was it their assortment of public stunts that alternated between incomprehensible and just in horrifically bad taste?

Look, the point is that intentional or not, The Flaming Lips seem to have spent this decade in particular burning whatever good will they have left with an audience that seems to be diminishing, especially when it is coming at the expense of the music. Even as someone who liked the majority of the records I described - with the exception of the Miley collaborations and the covers albums, obviously - it's been hard to work up a lot of excitement about The Flaming Lips, especially for this upcoming record. I've already said my lengthy piece about their continued work with Miley, but buzz was suggesting that those pop influences would be drizzling into their upcoming record Oczy Mlody, which might have been described as 'back-to-basics' but raised every indicator of following the Miley-influenced sound that did not flatter this group at all. Coupled with the loss of long-time drummer Kliph Scurlock, I wasn't sure what to expect with this, especially considering despite how alienating it was, I actually found The Terror pretty compelling in its monolithic darkness. But hey, I've actually stuck with The Flaming Lips for this long, so how is Oczy Mlody?

Honestly, not all that good. And worse still it's not all that good in a way that anyone who has been following The Flaming Lips could predict - not precisely bad because the textured sound and style that the band has cultivated can often do a lot of heavy lifting, but suffering because it is almost certainly a regression in delivery, writing, and ideas. A lot of people have said this is the project where they started thinking Wayne Coyne should get off the drugs, but I think the larger truth is that they need a better muse and focus if they want to make music that doesn't have the feel of a rapidly aging and horny hippy trying to relive his childhood with zero self-awareness.

And yeah, might as well start with the writing - and look, it's psychedelic rock, I don't tend to expect great or even good lyrics. But I think even diehard fans of The Flaming Lips will acknowledge Wayne Coyne's writing has started to slip hard into stream of consciousness yammering that lacks the coherence to really grip me, spiraling into fantastical imagery that bears more of a resemblance to trapper-keepers than any sort of sane thematic throughline. There really is a sense that language is failing Coyne on this record on songs like 'How?!', looking to try and capture an emotion that can't be conveyed through words, although I'd argue apocalyptic paranoia is such an obvious copout that I'm not all that surprised or gripped - hell, it just get obnoxious on the next track 'There Should Be Unicorns', which reads like a My Super Sweet 16 checklist for the perpetually stoned L.A. princess at the end of the world. Hell, you could argue more of the record circles around fears of death, from the reinterpretation of Miley's 'The Floyd Song' on 'Sunrise (Eyes Of The Young)' to the fantastical dreamscape of 'One Night While Hunting For Faeries And Witches And Wizards to Kill', or the damp creeping darkness of 'Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes'. Hell, 'The Castle' focuses directly on a friend who has committed suicide - but then you read Coyne's explanations for that song and how it was originally going to have a greater focus on his emotions but he was embarrassed to share it so he rewrote the song to focus on the friend... except it doesn't. And this drove me off the wall: just like with Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, Wayne Coyne keeps in the little chuckles and laughs he includes at the end of songs, or purposefully engages in lyrical deflection to avoid ever getting too real, and when you place the record in that context it gets a lot harder to stomach, because not only does it come across as calculated as hell, it neuters any real pathos Coyne's musings on aging and death might have.

Instead, the title of the record gives away the game: Oczy Mlody is a Polish phrase that translates to 'eyes to the young', and it's clear that said gaze is more voyeuristic than insightful, with Coyne eyeballing Miley's brand of confused L.A. princess psychedelia to emulate whatever fragments can be gleaned, all shallow disaffection and any moments of real poignant emotion undercut. And as an artistic choice, it's a baffling one, because there's just so little there that works. And you can't even really make the argument like with Ab-Soul's Do What Thou Wilt. that he was trolling his audience and critics, because that would imply a level of self-aware insight that Coyne doesn't utilize - mostly because if he had that insight, he probably would have put some effort into making his vocals sound better! They aren't nearly as nakedly gross as Miley's were on her last album - although she certainly does not sound good on the album closer 'We A Family', not how I would have ended the album - but outside of some decently arranged and produced backing vocals, his main vocal line sounds utterly fried, certainly not all that good! When you compare him to Reggie Watts giving a firm baritone soliloquy at the end of the record, Coyne sounds like even less of a presence, because for every backing arrangement, his main vocal line is drowned in reverb, compression, or ugly effects.

Granted, that might be more because in terms of melody or groove, this record is more formless and hazy than ever, rarely ever pulling together a single song I would consider having any sort of potency on its own, certainly nothing close to the cavernous walls of abrasion that made The Terror a force to be reckoned with. A big part of this seems to be the near complete exclusion of any sort of organic drumwork from the project, instead relying on sequenced drum machine beats that certainly don't lend the record any momentum or all that much flow or feel all that well-blended into the rest of the mix. Many of these tracks seem more content to meander across flat melodies and basslines that I really wish kicked this album into gear, but forget never hitting a real climax point of ecstasy or transcendence or existential horror, with some of the choppy vocal fragments of vocals and keys on songs like 'How?!' or the awkward vibrations of 'Nigdy Nie (Never No)' that do pick up some blocky layers of guitar for a little propulsion against the stuttered beat. No, more of these tracks seem more like they're collapsing mid-composition under their own turgid weight, or on cases like 'Sunrise (Eyes Of The Young)' or the tinny 'Almost Home (Blisko Domu)' an awkward mishmash of two not-particularly compelling sonic pieces until we get fragments of flattened strings and an actual guitar line to try and drag things back on track. And really, it's a testament that when the lingering darker guitar line of 'Galaxy I Sink' opens up into a gorgeously opulent strings section, or the awkwardly micced deeper beat playing off alien cascades of synth and swells of arranged instrumentation on 'One Night While Hunting', or the sharper bass and guitar groove of 'Watching The Frogs With Demon Eyes', or even the bells on 'Do Glowy' playing off the more jagged synths or the shimmer of the guitar on 'The Castle' that Wayne Coyne can indeed compose interesting progressions - but trying to blend with these beats that are either incredibly thin and underweight or are so clunky and deep they dominate the track, many of these songs wind up either feeling overstuffed or otherwise not all that appealing. And what blows my mind is how dour and bleak so much of this album feels in the melodies thanks to all the minor tones - if this is supposed to be a look to the effervescent joys of youth, you might think that Coyne is making sly commentary at the expense of my generation... but again, that would imply a level of insight I don't remotely buy given the actual writing on this record.

In short... look, if you completely ignore the vocals and anything Wayne Coyne actually says, this album is passable - the watery cascades of textures dont have momentum but there are some appealing melodic phrases that emerge from the murk. It doesn't really go anywhere, and it's a testament to how far The Flaming Lips have fallen that merely passable will be enough for some, but on enough drugs I can see this grabbing some interest. But great psychedelic music should inspire the feel of drugs without needing them to make the music tolerable, and for the most part, this record feels like a slog with a few bright moments, and lyrics and singing that aren't much better. For me, this a very, very light 5/10, only saved from a failing grade by good moments more than good songs, and only a recommendation for Flaming Lips completionists. Otherwise, they've got more than their fair share of great records, and this definitely isn't one of them - the majority of days, I'd skip it.

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