First published on www.13thfloor.co.nz
There’s no denying that this album is a difficult listen. Like all their work, defining exactly which planet they were on when they made this is as much a challenge as a truth. Fact or fiction it’s clear though that The Flaming Lips are not returning to any of their previous celestial destinations any time soon. Gone are the ethereal confetti coated unicorn art rock and Martian invader thematics that defined their first 25 years. At least, for now, there will be no returns to the Pink Robot battles of Yoshimi as a darker mood has rolled in and the outlook shows those particular stardust clouds will be milling gloomily around the hills for some time to come.
On paper, Oczy Mlody is the follow-up, both in style and tone, to the Lips’ 2013 effort The Terror, but having said that there’s been quite a lot of wastewater flow under the bridge between these two points that it’s hard to really look at this new one as a progression of the previous. The Terror was a very personal recording for singer Wayne Coyne, who’d separated from his long-term love, whilst the band’s stalwart creative Steven Drozd took his own slow dive into decline, relapsing back into serious drug use. That fatal mix could be seen as the band’s own equivalent psychedelic of a 3AM bar stool rant – perhaps their own constructed version of that old Sinatra cover One For My Baby (And One More For The Road). New York Times critic Jon Pareles summed up the album’s themes and mood: “The lyrics (of The Terror) find cosmic repercussions in a lovers’ breakup; loneliness turns to contemplation of grim human compulsions and the end of the universe.” Crikey!
What followed was a particularly weird period for the Lips. In late 2013 they produced and curated The Time Has Come To Shoot You Down…What A Sound – a rework of the Stone Roses’ debut album featuring a selection of ‘under the radar’ collaborators like New Fumes, Space Face, Stardeath and White Dwarfs and Foxygen.
Then in March of the following year the band’s longtime drummer Kliph Scurlock was fired, or so he claimed, for making negative comments about Coyne’s friend Christina Fallin (daughter of Oklahoma’s governor and leader the band Pink Pony) following public criticism for ‘cultural appropriation’ when she wore a Native American headdress during a public city photoshoot.
Defending the band’s position to spurn Scurlock, Coyne started a public spat calling Scurlock a “pathological liar” and even though he claimed there was no agenda, still went on the defence of Fallin by posting a series of immature images such as a photo of his dog in a feathered headdress. Suffice to say, the whole thing wasn’t pretty.
The bright colours eventually found their way back, though, with the help of a rather clever covers album (With A Little Help From My Friends) and the rainbows returned to Brony-land once more. Oddly it also was a time of new partnerships with strange choices, like pairing up with Miley Cyrus, who also appears on this album’s closer We A Family (Not a Sister Sledge cover by any stretch of the imagination).
However, not even a wrecking ball twerker such as the former Ms Montana can inject enough laughing-gas psychedelia to perk up this record. And so the tone of Oczy Mlody remains slow, sombre and quite moody at times – like a brooding teenager, high on exhaling the dust from too many Pink Floyd albums. Actually, it would have been great if Mr Barrett had turned up and brought back a few Martians of gaily coloured automatons to spice up proceedings. Instead, the imagery on this is probably their most Tolkien to date, with endless references to dark castles, evil wizards, mystic unicorns, frogs and travel to outer space – and that’s just in the song titles! Still, even at it’s most stoned moments, there’s a touch of sadness, like the waking dawn after a party, when the hangover kicks in and the guests have outstayed their welcome.
It’s the instrumental that begins the album that holds your hand as you enter the womb-cavern of this colossal party downer. A case in point is how which seems to be some kind of twisted shrug off and defeat as if the whole world has gone to pot and there’s nothing to be done. Despite his upbeat helium vocals, Coyne can’t disguise his depression: “White-trash rednecks earthworms eat the ground, legalise it – every drug right now/ Are you with us? Are you burning out?” before leading to a simple refrain of “How?” repeated as a chorus chant. I don’t want to say that this is some kind of political statement about the impending decline into Trump America, but you can’t help getting to that place in your thinking.
Here and there are some small dollops of hope, particularly in Drozd’s instrumental vision which builds and drops like a conductor’s baton. Like a demented lion tamer, he holds a remarkable focus on the changes between delicate fragile moments and Coyne’s chaotic antics and the milky digi-frantics. You can hear this on chirpy There Should Be Unicorns and its more morose cousin Sunrise (Eyes Of The Young) as they transition between the optimism of an infinite fantasy world and the paranoia and scepticism of reality as we age towards inevitable death: “The sunbeams/ Burnin’ my child dreams / The machine that brings me joy / Now it’s just a stupid toy /Oh, if I could go back and find you /I’d kiss your glowing head / And hear the things you said /And always believe you /(Believe you, believe you, believe you). It seems Coyne’s never going back to his happy place of his youth ever again.
That negativity continues: “Have you ever seen someone die” Coyne repeats on Listening to the Frogs and on single The Castle, there’s a juxtapose between fantasy imagery and themes of impermanence and mortality as the listener is transported through an alternative surrealist parallel universe of decaying optimism. Now all that’s well and good. Well, it’s pretty depressing really. But like Sufjan Steven’s last record about his dead mother, there’s some beauty in the lament of the dying. Except on We a Family, which might be the album’s much-needed dispersion of the dark weather.
In August 2015, following her hosting stint at the MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus put out a free downloadable 23 track experimental album co-written and recorded by herself and the Lips. Coyne called it a combination of Pink Floyd and Portishead and “a slightly wiser, sadder, more true version” of Cyrus’ candy-coated pop. So no surprise she reappears here on Oczy Mlody to close out the album. On We A Family Cyrus and Coyne tag team with matching helium vocals through this uplifting conclusion about togetherness.
It may seem like a strange pairing but it’s with Cyrus that the band appears to be the most joyous, at least of late. That could have something to do with having a female presence in the room, a breath of fresh air among the creative testosterone. Or perhaps just having a new BFF and all that this relationship behoves is sufficient. In conclusion, with the inauguration of the worse President in the entire universe about to commence; the escalation of terrorism and immigration woes in Europe; the breakdown of treaties and friendships; and the permanent loss of innocence for all unicorns, fairies and magical creatures it seems Oczy Mlody such an appropriate album to capture artistically how we all feel right now. And a good reason to pray for a brighter future.