Review Summary: The Flaming Lips say a lot without really saying anything at all.
It’s obvious from the moment that frontman Wayne Coyne’s voice monotonously intones “you think there’s some system / that controls and affects / I believe in nothing” at the beginning of Embryonic that this is a Flaming Lips record that really doesn’t believe in anything, at least nothing in the sense of the boundaries of popular rock music. For Coyne and company, Embryonic is a figurative rebirth (really, the cover art says it all) for the band that made their name on crafting quirky, psychedelic space-rock with a golden ear for pop hooks. They’ve always had their oddball urges, most noticeably Zaireeka’s ill-advised “quadraphonic” experience, but with that came the kind of earnest songwriting and memorable musicianship that really made the Flaming Lips one of the truly unique bands of the last twenty-five or so years. Do you know another lead singer who performs in a giant plastic bubble that rolls along the crowd?
Embryonic, however, takes all the conventions and songwriting chops they’ve perfected over their last few albums and throws them right down the garbage disposal. From the beginning it’s an enchanting reversal, a band that’s become moderately commercially successful over the past decade brandishing a seventy-minute middle finger to all who thought Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was the extent of their oeuvre. “Convinced of the Hex” is all sharp guitar jabs and a locomotive of a drum rhythm by workhorses Kliph Scurlock and Steve Drozd, framing Coyne’s purposely robotic lyrics. “The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine” is even trippier, an atmospheric jam session again highlighting some powerful drumming while the Lips vast array of synths and occasional effects paint a vibrant musical canvas. Coyne still hasn’t gotten over his penchant for penning opaque existentialist mumbo jumbo like “what does it mean / to dream what you dream / to believe what you’ve seen,” but in the context of this freak-out of a song, it fits right in.
After the typically Lip-sian ballad “Evil,” which sounds most like an outtake of At War With The Mystics or Yoshimi than many of the songs on here, things start to wander off into uncharted territory, and the whole concept of Embryonic is rewritten. Tracks like “Aquarius Sabotage” and “Gemini Syringes” do little but bridge the gap between proper songs, going from furious neo-psychedelia to soft string arrangements in one or a bubbly bass line to, um, nothing really in the other. Songs like “If,” “Scorpio Sword” and “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast” never aspire to be anything more than sound exercises, varying kaleidoscopes of noise that shift wildly from one pole to the next without really giving a damn where they end up. It’s fascinating to listen to initially, but increasingly frustrating by the end of the record.
By the time I was through the first disc of this mammoth double album, I realized that the Flaming Lips never set out to write songs; rather, the majority of tunes here are built on Krautrock-influenced jam sessions, mixing equal parts keyboards and heavily distorted guitar with what often sounds like a twenty-gun salute set to drums. Coyne is almost an afterthought here, occasionally coming in for a random non sequitur or dropping heavy-handed metaphors on equally cumbersome tracks like “See The Leaves” or the hellishly compressed “Worm Mountain” (featuring a why-bother? cameo by MGMT). His rarely intelligible lyrics, which run the gamut from animals to the human ego to Mother Nature to whatever the *** Coyne feels like mumbling, are occasionally inspiring and almost always thought-provoking, but the pretentious way they are delivered and the increasingly divergent soundscapes that support them muddy any message the band might be trying to deliver. Perhaps that’s what makes the creepy, children’s book-esque “I Can Be A Frog” stick out like a sore thumb; it’s the only song on the record where one can actually tell what Coyne is talking about.
Coyne himself has said that Embryonic is a collection of all their leftover ideas from At War With The Mystics, a bunch of songs all dumped together that “go everywhere.” Indeed, Embryonic is a record with a definite flow, but unlike their earlier efforts, it’s a flow that goes absolutely nowhere specific but rather in a hundred different directions, with little to no resolution in sight by the time the jumble of percussion and yelps close out “Watching The Planets.” One minute the band will be noodling on guitar on “Powerless;” the next they’re building up to a feedback-drenched roar on “The Ego’s Last Stand” or chanting atop a repetitive bass loop on “Sagittarius Silver Announcement.” And whether they’re mimicking Can on air-drum-worthy tracks like “Convinced of the Hex” or Pink Floyd on the spacey “The Ego’s Last Stand,” one can hardly shake the feeling that this is something other bands have done better before.
Embryonic is a strange, schizophrenic, and ridiculously out-sized record, and I love it for it. Unfortunately, it undercuts what made the Flaming Lips such a great band in the first place. In trying to write an album that challenges the very conceptions of what music can be, it forgets what comes at the core of music: the songs. Its vague concepts and the metamorphosing tunes are at first engaging but never leave a lasting impression; even after listening to the album several times, I can only match the name and sound of a few specific songs (“I Can Be A Frog” doesn’t count). Sure, it’s an album’s album, but that doesn’t excuse the jumbled-together nature of the material, material that reminded me too much of modern art: experimental for the sake of being experimental. Buried under production and eccentric songwriting that can’t decide where it wants to go, much less where it wants to end up, Embryonic is an excellent album to listen to, preferably with headphones. Just don’t expect to be blown away any longer than this hour-plus acid trip lasts.