- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Flaming Lips

At War With the Mystics

Warner Bros. Records

The Flaming Lips’ first studio record in four years is a blissed-out, inward-looking hodgepodge of neo-psychedelic and classic rock influences lacking both the playfulness and the ambition of the group’s last effort, the sprawling and hypnotic “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” or the twangy, hook-driven 1999 masterpiece “The Soft Bulletin.”

There is a veneer of topicality to the album, billed as an antiwar record. Songwriter Wayne Coyne’s liner notes offer shout-outs to Karl Rove, the Taliban and Darth Vader. The song “Free Radicals” pleads with a suicide bomber to reconsider. “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” strings together a series of facile hypothetical questions (“If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich/ Would you do it?”) implying that innate human rapaciousness might be stilled by good-natured self-reflection.

Mr. Coyne’s skill as a pop composer leavens the weary message lyrics with an injection of whatever musical style seems to fit the song: There is driving funk in the style of Curtis Mayfield, the stoner power progressions of (among others) Bachman-Turner Overdrive, minor-key acoustic bridges recalling Jonathan Richman and even the occasional alt-country passage bringing to mind early-career Lambchop.

Yet the mix of medium and message fails to add up to much beyond an enjoyably diverting Whitman’s Sampler of familiar sounds. No overarching atmosphere or mood emerges from repeat listenings; at the same time, there isn’t the consistent strangeness or obsessive experimentalism of the Lips’ very early efforts.

Mr. Coyne channels the upper-register funk of Prince (think “Kiss” from the 1986 album “Parade”) on “Free Radicals.” The sparse but insistent drumming gives the song heft that the lyrics lack. The song’s anti-suicide-bombing chorus, “You think you’re radical/ but you’re not so radical/ in fact you’re fanatical,” is almost puerile in its simplicity.

“It Overtakes Me” matches a distorted, fuzz-box bass line with a sprinkling of synth organ, falsetto lead vocals backed with comic baritone asides a la Parliament, all set against a sassy hand-clapping beat. The title repeats, with a few non-sequitur interjections (“It overtakes me/ it wakes and bakes me”) and is broken up with a long, spacey but plaintive digression in which the singer appears to be contemplating the spectral void of the universe.

On “Vein of Stars,” the pondering of the imponderable begins to melt into farce, with wah-wah-sustained guitar licks charting a devotional sine wave as Mr. Coyne sings, “Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven/ off in the future, maybe there ain’t no heaven/ It’s just you and me and it’s just as well/ And if there ain’t no heaven, maybe there ain’t no hell.” The lyric is followed by a surge of synthesized strings that brings to mind a post-punk version of a Nelson Riddle arrangement at once haunting and cornball.

It’s not surprising that the Flaming Lips would bring a vast and diverse musical palette to a studio record. It’s easy to forget that the Lips have been around since 1983, as long as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish and They Might Be Giants, and time enough for some bands to make and unmake themselves several times over.

Because the Flaming Lips seem so perpetually novel, it may be less the case that they are tired than that the polyphonic, surreal style they pioneered is by now a familiar alt-rock trope. Taken in this light, it’s best to consider “At War With the Mystics” as easy-listening for an ecstasy-popping generation grown up and graying.

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