Album of the week | The Flaming Lips' The Terror
In this new ongoing feature, we'll spotlight the most notable record of each week.
Naturally, I picked of a doozy of a week to kick things off. April has been loaded with fantastic albums, and today two of my favorite (so far) of 2013 see release, from the Flaming Lips and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. You can't go wrong with either.
The Terror stands alongside The Soft Bulletin as a definitive statement from one of the great bands of the last quarter century.
Read the review after the break.
This is a list of movies reviewed in our latest issue: Oblivion, To the Wonder, Lords of Salem, It’s a Disaster, No Place on Earth. The winds are apocalypse scented. Our anxieties swarm about us in a Pigpen squiggle cloud. Sequesters, public violence, resistant viruses, ice caps melting like cocktail rocks, "Accidental Racist." It’s no wonder pessimism is our decade's parachute pants.
Recently I was standing in a large white room of the MCA, staring entranced at Yves Klein’s Untitled Fire Painting (F 27 I). A small wall-mounted video to the side showed the French artist in his creative process—dressed in a crisp gray suit, wielding an industrial blowtorch with Rambo ease, throwing flame against his surfaces with wide-eyed wonder. The resulting canvas brought to mind solar flares and budding stems of poppies, all colored in gold, char and ochre. It could have been an enlarged microscope slide or a condensed cosmic map. It was both biological and beautiful, more the inimitable process of wild chemistry than human craft.
The work is part of an exhibit called “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void 1949–1962.” Canvases are incinerated, knifed, perforated with buckshot and smeared in fur and gore. In a corner the curator could very well have placed an iPod on a pedestal playing the new Flaming Lips album, The Terror. The record fits in with the collection—brutish, structureless and minimalist.
The Oklahomans’ past records have spoken of the human condition in general terms: We all die; we are insignificant in the grand scheme of space; you have to push through adversity; giraffes are rad. You know, hippie-ish shit with a dark twist. Here, the ratio of glee to glum has inverted. And Steven Drodz and Wayne Coyne have gone from singing of universal pain to focusing on their own inner turmoil.
In an odd way, it’s as much a soul record as a krautrock session. The tracks are linear and looping, what ragged men making meditative trance might produce after not sleeping for four days. The basic rock-band setup—to which the group returned on the prior Embryonic, a scuzzy LP stoner rock—has been abandoned for iPad apps, vintage synths and garage-sale drum machines. “Look… The Sun Is Rising” and “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” float on simplistic drum patterns, punctuated with bolts of electroshock guitar and abracadabra synths. Its an eerie hybrid of early Public Image Limited and Broadcast that slowly reveals its layers through the fog on repeat listens.
Drozd, the multi-instrumentalist and composing brain who joined the Lips a decade into their life, and Coyne have had a sort of Dante and Virgil relationship, respectively. Drozd’s struggles with addiction have been well documented on film and in interviews. Coyne, part circus huckster and self-help guru, has come off as a cheerleader. The two’s friendship seems to go like this: “I’m going through some rough shit,” Drozd says. “Dude, you’ll get through it! I’ll be there at your side and people who care are looking out for you! Look at how kind of beautiful human suffering is! Write about it.” (To really, really poorly paraphrase the first few Cantos of Inferno.)
The difference now is that Coyne is under shadow as well. Yes, the guy in the fun bubble with the Hulk hands is finding it hard to see the fun of it all. The Terror was created as his long marriage crumbled. “Try to Explain,” the closest the album comes to a standard ballad, deals with drifting apart. “It isn’t wise, loving someone… Try to explain why you’ve changed,” Coyne sings in his falsetto. Unlike prior Lips LPs, Drozd handles a large vocal workload, too. Both sing in their highest register, adding to the overall vibe, a paradoxical cocktail of elysian disquiet.
I can’t think of another band on a major label that would record a droning death-pop song on their phone for wide release. The Lips' strengths are going with their instincts and keeping things simple. That can sometimes lead to dire results, if, say, Ke$ha is in the room. But “Be Free, A Way,” nothing more than a kind of church hymn over droning and pulses, works. Part is due to the chutzpah of its crudeness, but most of the success is built upon raw emotion. They used to act freaked; now they are genuinely freaked out. Coyne plays with his uncomplicated lyrics, paring them down to twist meaning [“I believed you. I believe you. I believe.”] or building contradictions [“Turning violent / You aren’t violent”].
Yet after drifting through all this noise and dire feelings, I feel happy. Why is that? Art is inherently optimistic. Even death metal bands have to head into the studio inspired to create and collaborate with their bros, right? You can’t be a total nihilist and create. But sometimes you have to rip up the canvas and make it ugly to create something unexpectedly gorgeous.