The Flaming Lips
At War with the Mystics
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2006, Volume 13, #5
Written by John Metzger
Wayne Coyne, the mastermind behind The Flaming Lips, always has had a lot on his mind, but even by his standards, he’s working overtime on the band’s eleventh studio outing At War with the Mystics. Turning his attention to a broader array of worldly issues, he forsakes the thematic rumination upon mortality that bound together The Soft Bulletin as well as Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ science-fiction-imbued storyline about post-9/11 fear. Instead, what he offers is a more loosely-knit collection of songs that ponders such notions as personal responsibility (The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song), the superficiality of pop culture (The Sound of Failure), and the current clash of religious fanaticism (Free Radicals). As the set tumbles towards the inevitable conclusion that is captured on its final trilogy of tunes (The W.A.N.D., Pompeii Am Götterdaämmerung, and Goin’ On), it becomes abundantly clear that Coyne’s end goal is to awaken mankind from its apathetic slumber and inspire a populist uprising. Essentially, he now is trying to save the world from itself — or, at the very least, from the corporate greed that seemingly surrounds George W. Bush’s presidency.
Such moralistic posturing, however, is a difficult thing to parlay into a universally affecting tale without becoming overbearingly self-important, and Coyne doesn’t do himself any favors by affixing absurdly long titles to his songs, not the least of which are My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion (The Inner Life as Blazing Shield of Defiance and Optimism as Celestial Spear of Action) and Free Radicals (A Hallucination of the Christmas Skeleton Pleading with a Suicide Bomber). Then again, The Flaming Lips always has had a fascination of sorts with ’70s progressive rock, and from the album’s artwork to the overblown arrangements that envelope its bubblegum pop songs, At War with the Mystics is no exception. Although Coyne and company try to counterbalance the seriousness of its lyrics with a zany sense of sonic humor, its efforts frequently sound a bit hollow — as if the experimental studio trickery is being done simply for the sake of it.
Notwithstanding, this doesn’t mean that At War with the Mystics is devoid of merit. Throughout the album, The Flaming Lips along with co-producers Dave Fridmann and Scott Booker playfully toy with the sonic spectrum, creating layered and lush arrangements that are stuffed to the brim with strange effects that whiz by with cosmic implications. Like a splatter painting by Jackson Pollack, the music abstractly darts from a collision of The Moody Blues, ’70s soul, and Peter Gabriel-led Genesis on The Sound of Failure to Smile-era Beach Boys on My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion, and from the Yes-ish clatter (circa 90125) of The W.A.N.D. to the Prince-meets-David Bowie contours of Free Radicals. Yet, in order to appreciate fully the totality of what The Flaming Lips has accomplished in this regard, one must listen to the outing on a high-fidelity stereo system or, at a minimum, through a set of quality headphones affixed to something other than an aurally-deficient iPod. Nevertheless, the problem remains that The Flaming Lips too often circumvents its melodic sensibility by stretching each idea until it breaks, and although At War with the Mystics ultimately strives to update the symphonic spiritual quests of The Moody Blues’ classics, it often sounds more like insubstantial ear candy.
49th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Rock Instrumental Performance
The Wizard Turns On...
49th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box