Review Summary: Forget that the Flaming Lips are this, and last decade's, The Beatles. Forget that Wayne Coyne is our child-like, pied piper savior, and get ready to see the Lips in a whole new light. It's more of a brain teaser, and less of a fan pleaser.
Usually the success of any Flaming Lips album is measured by how different it sounds from their last. And in those regards, this record would get a perfect 5/5 from ANY critic. Secondly, we prepare ourselves for counting just how many fantastic melodies are present on the new record, and for the most part, this album would typically garner maybe a 2/5 at best. It's no wonder why you'll hear cries of "they forgot how to write songs!", and, "screw this ***, I'm tossing on "The Soft Bulletin" again". The Flaming Lips have destroyed all of the support and hype that publications such as Pitchfork Media and Rolling Stone have built up for them (critics assuring uncertain fans that The Flaming Lips are something akin to a new Beatles), and in doing so, managed to prove that they're no longer tied down to the reputation "The Soft Bulletin" built up for them. Here is a band that is just as comfortable being under the radar, as they were on magazine covers and at the top of "Best of the Year" lists (the odd thing is, The Flaming Lips will probably still make those lists and have their images splashed upon those magazine covers).
With "Embryonic" The Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City's darling hippie wonders, have released something that sounds unlike anything recorded in their 20-something year existence. No longer are we listening to Wayne's sincere vocals soar above an orchestra of beautiful, acid drenched instruments. Instead, Wayne Coyne is detached, possessed, sounding more like Simeon Coxe (of The Silver Apples fame) than a surprisingly jubilant Neil Young. Rich layers of synthetic strings, loud acoustic guitar flourishes, and bouncy bass lines have been replaced by twinkling, menacing keyboards (ala, "Bitches Brew"), scratchy, typewriter guitar bursts, and deep, fuzzed out bass lines. It's obvious that the Lip's 60's pop influences have been shuffled out and replaced by some relatively unorthodox influences. I hear head pounding Kraut-rock, proto-electronica peeping through the clutter of most of these tracks, and psychedelic "freak outs"; among many of the other wild and daring traits this album stitches onto itself. In a generalized sense, this is The Flaming Lip's "Kid A".
But when I first heard the pre-released tracks from "Embryonic", I was prepared for souring disappointment. I didn't hear any melodies that would justify me setting these songs on repeat. One right after another, I was disappointed. However, unlike many others, who still clung onto their glasses of spoiled milk, I soon began to warm-up to the sound of a "new" Lips, just like I had to with the last four albums they've released. It wasn't until I heard "See the Leaves", with it's monstrous, growling bass, tsunami drumming (Kliph finally proves he's more than just a Steven Drozd replacement, but a completely respectable drummer in his own right), and keyboard wails that I gave into the "Embryonic" experience and hastily set down my pre-order (in which I received a nice, collectors edition hairy album sleeve. Yeah, these guys sure are weird).
The trick here is to tune your ears to the right sounds. You can't listen for poppy melodies anymore, you have to focus more on the atmosphere and the rhythms. You'll find the trick works, especially on the album's best head bangers ("Convinced of the Hex", "Watching the Planets", and the aforementioned, "See the Leaves"), while other songs begged to be turned up as loud as your stereo system can handle for the sake of being overwhelmed by confusing excitement ("Worm Mountain", "Scorpio Sword", "Your Bats", "The Ego's Last Stand"). However, this album is still, more of an achievement for the band's reputation, than for the actual fans. Never since their early days of amateurish acid garage rock (which often overshot whatever mark they were trying to hit) have the Lips sounded less like a well calculated, shimmery pop machine and more like an actual band, taking a loose jam, and just rocking it out and stretching it as far as it will go. Sure, these tracks aren't nearly as fleshed out as anything from "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots", or, "The Soft Bulletin", however, it's in this 70 minute plus kaleidoscope mess that the Lips present us an album which treasures need to be searched for, rather than presented on a silver platter.
It's not without faults though, and in actuality, if it weren't for the fact that most of these songs meld into one, I could pinpoint several songs that are rather weak. The album's rickety bridge relies on the key tracks that basically "fortify" the albums value. Some moments, slip through the cracks and get washed away in a raging river, while other tracks simply don't work (I'm not a big fan of "I Can Be A Frog", and it's attempts to capture cutesy images in an album full of dark and brooding tracks. It's basically the "Big Ol' Bug is the New Baby Now" of this album). And it's worth mentioning that most listeners may fall off on the deep end along with these fragments that struggle to fit like misshapen jigsaw pieces. However, if you can make it to the explosive "Watching the Planets" ("yes, yes, yes! Killing the ego! Yes, yes, yes ALRIGHT!" cries Wayne Coyne and his army of possessed minions) without yet growing tired of this record, chances are you'll grow to love it.
After all the praise I give the Lips and this record, oddly enough, I have to agree with every critic who hates this album. Their reasons for feeling such a way are undeniably objective complaints (raw production, lack of any well developed melodies, more of a disjointed mess then an actual cohesive piece of work), but all of those reasons are exactly why I love this album. It's exiting and wild unlike any Lips album before it, and it proves promising for the band's future (knowing that they can easily abandon heaps of critical praise and potential radio singles for the sake of remaining fresh). And if you're finding it hard to drink this album in, just follow the instructions that appear as the lyrical theme of this record; give up, loose control, go wild (little more than hippie idioms to some, like a re-worked "turn on, tune in, drop out"), and let your head swim in the dark, wild jungles of "Embryonic".
"I wish I could go back in time", mourns Wayne Coyne on "Evil", one of the albums few touching moments. "No one, ever really can", he confirms. And with this, the final spear is thrusted through the heart of everybody who fell in love with the Lip's through classics such as "Christmas at the Zoo". And in all honesty, I'm glad we're not going back in time. As much as I love, and dearly miss, the "Clouds Taste Metallic" era, I can't seem to justify any reason why the Lips should ever tread old ground, when they're so damn good at always pushing forward. In my opinion, best album of 2009 (then again, Wayne Coyne could probably just have waved his dick in my face and I would STILL think it's better than at least 99% of the albums released this year. Oh wait, he already has).