The Flaming Lips – The Terror
With Embryonic, the Flaming Lips pivoted their persona from self-consciously arty teddy bears to self-consciously arty provocateurs. It was a heavy, chaotic and eclectic record, something that challenged the group and polarized the fans roped in by the relatively more cuddly Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. But their messy creativity only emboldened them, and in the following years, the Lips indulged in all matter of nutty experiments and gimmicks that make Zaireeka look like a stuffy gallery piece: 24-hour songs, music-loaded flash drives implanted in gummy skulls, Super Bowl ads, blood-spattered posters and vinyl records, collaborative albums, and that’s just scratching the surface. Of course, barring the entertaining collab album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, most of these projects ended up just being conceptual curiosities, never yielding music as interesting as the fact these things existed in the first place. Many fans cried out for the Lips to quit mucking around and get back to work on their next record, but on the evidence of 2013’s The Terror, it seems all those gimmicks were just ways to distract themselves from dealing with personal turmoil.
Make no mistake, The Terror is the darkest Flaming Lips album yet. With its droning electronics, blasts of noise and helpless vocals, the record doesn’t hide its obsession with anguish, depression and alienation. There’s little respite in Wayne Coyne’s lyrics too: Where Embryonic at least held out the hope that people “can be gentle too, if they decide,” The Terror displays no such sentiment. Instead, Coyne’s voice rarely rises above the surrounding murk, and we get murmurs like “Love is always something you should fear” and “You’ve got a lot of nerve to fuck with me!” Perhaps befitting such a joyless ride, there’s nothing even close to a single here; the record’s basically a giant pile of shifting dynamics (even to the point that, upon a cursory listen, it can seem unwavering). Fortunately for all involved, the album is pretty fascinating, far from the slog it could have been. Carrying over Embryonic‘s early-’80s sci-fi bent, the album sounds like the band is dragging its feet across a desolate desert planet, with all the dreary spaciness and creepy sound design that implies. The pulsing, psychedelic synths that hum through “Look…The Sun Rising” echo electronic pioneers Silver Apples; the self-defeating “You Are Alone” sounds like Coyne at war with himself as he’s drifting off to sleep at night, and the centerpiece “Your Lust” feels like the post-apocalyptic sequel to Embryonic‘s “Powerless,” jamming off of Steve Drozd’s scorching guitar riff.
While all this commitment to mood and texture means that The Terror is a more consistent, cohesive album than Embryonic (or a lot of Lips albums, for that matter), it also means the band is limiting the palette they paint with. Unfortunately, when dealing with emotions this personal, the Flaming Lips are a band that shouldn’t put restrictions on themselves. One of the reasons, say, The Soft Bulletin works as well as it does is because it’s insanely maximal, turning its heart-on-the-sleeve ruminations into a transcendent symphony. The Terror wants to do the same thing with despair, yet winds up frustratingly distant, since it too-often uses its experimentation to obscure rather than to illuminate the negative feelings. This isn’t to say the Flaming Lips don’t ever touch brilliance here—there are moments on every song that do, and “Try To Explain” and “Turning Violent” are particularly beautiful and heartwrenching—but the album misfires just enough that it can seem like a missed opportunity. Even so, the Flaming Lips are onto something, and if gimmicky art projects are what it takes for them to get to where they need to be next time, then more power to them.