by Jericho Cerrona
The "what the fuck happened to The Flaming Lips?" narrative is, in some senses, completely natural given Wayne Coyne and company's decades-long desire to do whatever they want whenever they want. Since the band have entered the iconic psych pop canon with classics like 1999's Soft Bulletin and 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the trajectory from seminal experimental outsiders to celebrity-trolling punching bags seems all the more alarming. However, for every misstep like 2006's At War with the Mystics, there have been adventurous lo-fi statements of purpose such as 2009's Embryonic, which suggested that Coyne, Steve Drzod, and Michael Ivins hadn't completely disappeared up their own asses.
2013's The Terror was another example of the Lips' pushing forward and exploring synth-driven ambience, but unfortunately, the relative success of that record was overshadowed by lame Beatles covers and ill-judged bong-rip sessions with Miley Cyrus. As it turned out, The Flaming Lips had gone from the niche band everyone admired to the bloated self-parody of grey-haired hippies doing too many drugs and seeing too many rainbow-colored wormholes. Had Coyne been able to sell all of this as some kind of commentary on mid-life crisis joining hands with over-sexed, strung out millennial privilege, then such annoying excursions could have had a degree of self-effacing context. However, somewhere along the line, The Flaming Lips forgot about the actual music. In true egomaniacal fashion, Coyne believed that the main draw of his band was simply their abrasive unpredictability rather than compelling songwriting.
On their 14th proper full-length Oczy Mlody, the Lips retreat inward by combining many of their old signifiers; demon frogs, rainbows, unicorns, and Pink Floyd-inspired acid psychedelia, with some of their more recent fixations; a Miley Cyrus guest spot, somber synths, hip-hop-influenced beats, etc. The results are an album which strains for a shroom-trance atmosphere and lyrical provocation that the band simply don't believe in anymore. When Coyne sings White trash rednecks, earthworms eat the ground/Legalize it-every drug right now/Are you with us are you burnin' out?/Kill your rock n'roll, motherfuckin' hip hop sound on "How??" the obvious intent is to engender a reaction, but the vibe of the song is so washed-out and unmemorable that the likely reaction will be a shrug. Elsewhere, Coyne's self-satisfied ramblings reach a pinnacle on "Galaxy I Sink", where he mutters How can the stars really know me now/When I fear their light will burn me up? It's a lame attempt at profundity where none exists, further exacerbating by the song's lush symphonic arrangement. Worst still is the ironic detachment which Coyne trots out at will here; with references to dayglo strippers, edible butterflies, and rainbow sluts being especially representative of the record's lyrical vomit.
Truthfully, Oczy Mlody isn't a complete train wreck. It's much too subdued and sonically textured to be dismissed outright with any kind of passionate disdain, and it's tough to deny the tactile propulsion of "A Night While Wizard Hunting" or the pleasant blippy electronica of "Almost Home." However, what's missing here is the sense that The Flaming Lips are challenging themselves in some way or moving forward with a clear musical direction or thematic purpose. Though uneven, The Terror at least attempted to use ambient keyboards in order to accentuate Coyne's pessimistic lyrics concerning the breakup with his longtime partner and Drzod's relapse. On Oczy Mlody, The Lips have very little to say, clumsily trying to incorporate "hip" modern touches like auto-tune, pitch-shifting, and dreary wannabe hip-hop inflections to cover for a lack of substance.
In interviews, Coyne has described Oczy Mlody as "Syd Barrett meets ASAP Rocky", and therein lies a huge problem since, for one thing, it's unclear which movement of Barrett's career he was referring to. Like Barrett, The Lips began as trailblazers only to steadily fall into appropriations of their own inflated pretensions. Misguided left turns such as the 24-hour gummy skull experiment, Yoko EP, Christmas piano album, countless limp cover records, and that Miley Cyrus debacle, have been signaling career implosion for some time now. Of course, The Flaming Lips know this and probably planned it out that way. Still, it's tough to remember a time when the cult of Coyne was referenced with hushed reverence rather than the kind of pained grimace which greets them now. Fittingly, Oczy Mlody ends with background in-studio chuckles from the group. At least someone is laughing.