Wednesday, July 24, 2019

album review: 'king's mouth' by the flaming lips

I was nearly done with The Flaming Lips.

Seriously, I was - I may have been way more forgiving to a project like The Terror than anyone should have been, but between Wayne Coyne's questionable antics, the mess of work done with Miley Cyrus that sucked, and the undercooked, badly produced mush that was Oczy Mlody that I was probably way kinder to than I should have been, I was nearly out of patience. Hell, I started my last review with the line, "when did you stop liking the Flaming Lips"!

And yet here I am, willing to give them another chance with King's Mouth, which many have described as a genuine return to form and was released on vinyl in April of this year, only now getting a digital release. And I had reason to believe this could be good - Dave Fridmann was no longer producing with the band handling the majority of it in house, and after the mess he delivered on the last Baroness album that was only going to be a plus - and as far as I can tell this is their shortest-ever full-length project. Hell, I even saw comparisons made to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and other projects from The Flaming Lips' glory years, I had every reason to hope... so did The Flaming Lips win me back with King's Mouth?

You know, I've said before that I often assemble my preambles before I listen to the album in full - which is why I always provide a link to skip them in the description in case you want me to get right to it - and I think in this case, after giving this album even just a few spins, I think I got the framing entirely wrong, particularly in assuming The Flaming Lips had to 'win me back' at all, or even gave a shit about winning anyone back and not just meandering into more burbling shallows of psychedelia. And while this has always been true about The Flaming Lips - they're a band that has trafficked in offbeat weirdness long enough to win and lose entirely new fans alike - more often than most King's Mouth feels like a project unconcerned with urgency, which normally wouldn't be a problem for an album in this lane... if I felt that The Flaming Lips weren't retreading ground they've touched plenty of times before in a slightly different package that doesn't quite demand deeper contemplation. 

Hell, you can argue the package might even feel a bit worse for wear this time around, so let's start with the production - and yes, while King's Mouth doesn't quite sound as titanic as the Dave Fridmann-produced projects did, there's still enough in the way of warping layers and vintage arranged flourishes to give the album a fair amount of fractured grandeur, which is essential for a concept as tripped-out as this might be. Now let me make this clear, The Flaming Lips are definitely showing where they're worse for wear this time: beyond just Mick Jones of The Clash contributing vocals as the haggard old storyteller, Wayne Coyne's reedy tone is sounding more ragged and aged than ever, and even a cushion of reverb and the occasional splash of pitch-shifting on cuts like 'How Many Times' can't disguise it. And while I'm here, while I do appreciate that the thrumming bass is submerged but still has presence, the choice to place more of the organic drum timbres midway back while the drum machines from Oczy Mlody are closer to the front just feels like the holdover nobody asked for, especially given as they never seem to have the impact to match those melodic swells and even hints of abrasion in the synth and guitars that can come through - which when they don't sound bricked to hell and back, have always worked for me! That's something I want to hammer on here, because to the broader population it's been so long since The Flaming Lips were making accessible music, that while they've always had a gift for tune that they overmixed amidst an abundance of quirky whirs and choppy burbles that have always been kind of hit-and-miss for me - the biggest and most exasperating example here are all the farty, burping flourishes on 'Giant Baby' - texturally they can be an impressive psychedelic rock band and there are absolutely songs here that hit that broader sense of grandeur. No, it's not the second coming of The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and songs like 'The Sparrow' seem like they're coming close to coalescing with its half-formed sandy groove and gargling vocal line but never do, but the sparkle comes through like the operatic gleam split asunder by walls of howling distortion on 'Electric Fire', the choral bombast and bells of 'Funeral Parade', and a real hook materializing off the acoustics and spikes of stuttered vocals on 'All For The Life Of The City' and 'How Can A Head'.

But here's the problem: remember how I mentioned Mick Jones as a storyteller? Yeah, this album is actually trying to have something of a narrative, almost with the structure of a children's story being told by an old hippie who just took another handful of mushrooms: a baby with a giant head is born but during birth the queen mother dies, the giant baby grows so large to the point where when an avalanche threatens the city the baby eats it - and the universe - and then dies in the process, where then the followers chop off the head and live inside it for all eternity. And obvious comparisons to Zardoz or that Rick & Morty episode riffing on Zardoz aside, dig even a little bit deeper and you see some of Wayne Coyne's traditional thematic beats rising to the surface yet again through some pretty basic poetry: the inevitability of death, the destructive force of creativity, the quasi-Messianic subtext of the creative savior figure that will never be fully understood but instead ostracized before being revered, and the wondrous power of human spirit to bring forth new life - if you're a Flaming Lips fan, you've seen these beats hit before... and in a strange sense, that's probably my biggest hangup with King's Mouth. I brought up momentum and a lack of concern with urgency earlier in the review, which tends to best work if the artists are exploring new or uncharted territory, either sonically or thematically - but when you realize that The Flaming Lips aren't really doing much of either this time around, a likable beat but an increasingly familiar one, outside of the thin storybook structure it kills some of the already flimsy dramatic stakes. Hell, just how Mick Jones ends the album with a flat, "And that is the end of our story - bye", you get the feeling this project is more of a dalliance to reset expectations than open up new thrills or explore new ideas... which when so many of the songs feel kind of diffuse and unconcerned with straightforward delivery, makes it a little hard to care that much.

And yet at this point... look, I've been a long-suffering Flaming Lips fan for a while, I'm not surprised that this project has the feel of having nothing left to prove - you could argue that was true as early as At War With The Mystics over a decade ago. But that also makes it hard to recommend this beyond an exercise in slightly better production and a quirky little narrative - I've seen critics describe this as feeling like more of an inessential side project, but consider The Flaming Lips have made side ventures like The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends and then wonder if you should expect more - and then realize the band couldn't care less one way or the other. Whatever, for me it's a very solid 6/10, generally enjoyable but pretty disposable - definitely an improvement and worth a listen or two, but don't be surprised if this fades pretty fast for whatever gallivanting the band will do next.

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