The ‘mystics’ in the title of the latest Flaming Lips lp are the Christian fundamentalists running the United States. But don’t get the impression that this is simply a protest record (as if anything the Flaming Lips ever do would be considered simple). Apart from a sprinkling of songs about power and politics, the album does not focus on exploits of the Bush administration, but manages to explore far more profound subject matter – grief, death, the universe, and so on.
The opening track ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ is the first single, and probably the catchiest song about the abuse of power that you’ll ever hear. Over jerky stop/start rhythms, cartoonish backing vocals, fuzzy guitar and all manner of beeps and clangs, Wayne Coyne asks:
If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch, would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor so that you could be rich, would you do it?
And then the chorus:
What would you do with all your power?
It is not necessarily a question for any particular politician, but a question for anyone in a position of power. How does power change us? What would we do if we were given the power to change things?
Second song ‘Free Radicals’ is minimalist funk in the Prince tradition – with crackling guitar, stuttering percussion, and a chorus of falsetto vocals, while Coyne pleads with a potential suicide bomber:
You’re not radical, you’re fanatical.
The following group of tracks form the emotional core of ‘At War With The Mystics’ and contain some of the most beautiful sounds on the album. Each is concerned with grief, death and the search for meaning.
‘The Sound of Failure’ describes the inadequacy of pop culture to deal with real despair. The death of a friend leads a young girl to question the optimism of the music she listens to:
Go tell Britney, go tell Gwen…
The chorus is breezy, filled with summery flute sounds and soulful guitars. But there are no answers for the girl, and when the song drifts into its instrumental postscript, she is left in darkness and confusion.
‘My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion’ is similarly concerned with death and renewal, but it is more optimistic, swelling from a quiet beginning to almost anthemic proportions.
In the third song in this group ‘Vein of Stars’, Coyne says that maybe ‘there isn’t a vein of stars calling out my name’. It suggests a meaningless universe, but is one of the most gorgeous Flaming Lips songs, driven by acoustic guitar and piano, and adorned with shimmering keyboards and bubbling electronica.
At the album’s halfway mark, the instrumental ‘The Wizard Turns On…’ acts as a sort of interval, best described by Wayne Coyne as a ‘space jam’.
The second half of the album opens with a return to the immediacy of ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ and ‘Free Radicals’. ‘It Overtakes Me’ is a fuzzy, funky, shrieking stomp about existential panic, again best described by Coyne as ‘a mashing of Gwen Stefani and the Stooges’.
We’ve heard ‘Mr Ambulance Driver’ before (it was included on the ‘Wedding Crashers’ soundtrack), and I initially baulked at its inclusion on this album. On reflection, however, one can see the sense in it being here. It is another song about death, this time from the point of view of the survivor of a car crash as they sit waiting for an ambulance, wishing that they, and not their partner, were dead. It is grim material, but perhaps the sweetest-sounding song on the record.
There are no prizes for guessing who ‘Haven’t Got A Clue’ might be aimed at:
You used your money and your friends to trick me.
Every time you state your case I want to punch your face.
The song itself is a delicious pot-pourri of squelches, bleeps, bells, squeaks and voices.
‘The Wand’ is the album’s protest anthem. Over a fuzzy prog-rock riff and funky beat, Wayne Coyne sings about self-belief:
We got the power now, motherfuckers, that’s where it belongs
Coyne admits that the song does not offer any solutions, but suggests that it is ‘cosmically empowering’. It might not work as a protest song, but it makes pretty good music.
‘Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung’ is perhaps the most unusual song among an album of unusual songs – a chugging 70s prog-rock epic about a young couple planning their suicide. Again, grim subject matter, but musically triumphant.
The closing track ‘Goin’ On’ comes as somewhat anti-climactic. Both musically and lyrically, it is the simplest song on the lp. Here Coyne suggests that suffering and anxiety can be relieved by acceptance. The message is plain enough, but doesn’t quite sit with the ideas of protest and war mentioned elsewhere.
Like all great bands – The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, The Smiths, Radiohead – the Flaming Lips have successfully created a unique sonic landscape. ‘At War With The Mystics’ completes a trilogy of captivating and utterly original albums. It might fall a little short of the achievements of ‘Soft Bulletin’ or ‘Yoshimi’, but the shortfall is small indeed.
All pop music should be this good.
‘At War With The Mystics” is released in Australia on April 3rd 2006.