Is Wayne Coyne Dying? Review: The Flaming Lips - The Terror
Posted on Wednesday, 3 April 2013 | No Comments
"I only take MDMA and coke and stuff. I've only done acid a few times, but these drugs are like the recreational fun drugs. That's what I call them." Now, if ever there's a quote to make a fan worry about the forthcoming album from an artist they like, that's it right there. It could be Oasis before Be Here Now, Primal Scream before Give Out But Don't Give Up, Fleetwood Mac before anything after Tusk...you get the picture. White lines before a fall. Unfortunately for us, the man currently grinding his teeth to dust instead of writing any actual tunes is the irrepressable psychedelic dandy Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. And in good and bad, The Terror is the latest entry in the hall of too-much-damn-coke albums.
Their magestic 1999 album The Soft Bulletin, which traded distorted guitars for electronic orchestras and Beach Boys chord sequences, was a stunning and emotional statement which finally made The Flaming Lips (irrespective of how great much of their previous work was) more than a grunge-era one hit wonder. But with this triumph slowly curdling into formula - 2002's still pretty good Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and 2006's patchy At Way with the Mystics - it also became something of an albatross around the band's neck, as they toured the glitter-happy Soft Bulletin set-up around the world year after year. 2009's chaotic, lengthy Embryonic suggested that in shifting back to the loud guitars but with the added experience and influences accumulated in the previous decade, The Flaming Lips had found their way again: on stunning rockers like See the Leaves and Watching the Planets, it sounded like they had just stumbled onto their next great act.
However. What followed from this apparent re-birth was instead de-evolution on a shocking scale. A series of increasingly attention-seeking pranks - putting tracks on USB sticks inside gummy skulls and then actual skulls, six and twenty-four hour long pieces - and idea-free collaborations that ran the gamut from the midly disappointing (Nick Cave, Lightning Bolt, Erykah Badu) to the out-and-out moronic (fucking Ke$ha?!?) that were eventually complied onto the piss-weak The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends compliation.
On The Terror then, we can at least be assured that they have finally got their ADD selves together for long enough to sit down and actually to a full, Ke$ha free album. Also on their side: The Terror has been promoted as the final death below to any lingering twee-ness attached to The Flaming Lips brand. This is a dark, severe album that sees the band trying out some stark new arrangement ideas, powered by thudding drum machine patterns to emerge with a sound quite unlike anything in their catalogue. The malaise of At War with the Mystics is certainly gone: however, the songwriting prowess and emotional connection of their past has been jettisoned with it.
Look....The Sun is Rising make for a haunting enough opening, juttering into life with a devilish synth refrain and frazzled, sun-burnt drums in the way only Dave Fridmann can conjure up (his bright but ultra-distorted style of production being one of the few consistent high points of the record). It's threatening, it's loud, it sounds huge...and then Wayne Coyne's vocal comes in. Whatever goodwill this dead-eyed post-punk dystopia has built up so far are ruined as soon as his voice comes in, and it becomes clear that it's utterly utterly shot. What had been cracked and endearing is now audibly struggling to hit the notes, across any range - and this just gets worse and worse as the album goes on.
The first track also sets up the unfortunate template for the rest of the album, where a hook or production idea that seems strong in a small dose - the lolliping rhythm that runs through the title track, the return of that serrated-steel guitar sound on Always There...In Our Hearts - almost invariable runs out of stream halfway through the tracks. Chief offender, and absolute momentum killer, is attempted centerpiece You Lust. What starts off as a far stronger representative of the dark ambience and bleached out sound aesthetic of the album, paired to some actual honest-to-god hooks, becomes agonisingly monotonous after six minutes...and you're still only half-way through. Instead of dynamics or progression with the songs, here the band are contempt just to whack on a few more whacky synth tones they stumbled upon instead. (Much of the critcism headed towards The Knife's hugely ambitious and undoubtedly difficult Shaking the Habitual ultimately applies far more stongly here - it's pseud ambition and drugged-up pretention over any actual statement).
And this, perhaps, is the most damning thing of all about The Terror. That powerful emotional tug that lay at the heart of The Flaming Lips' most enduring moments is nowhere to be found here. They don't even manage to make any gain out of their own dead-eyed, drugged-up nihilism in the way acts as varied as The Birthday Party, The Weeknd or Suicide (whose mangled, primitive take on electronica is evidently a major influence on The Terror's sound pallete). Instead of a flip-side of the hard-fought beauty and optimism they've so often expressed - which certainly has the potential of being a promising direction to take the band in - this just comes across as the narcissistic whining of a rich, pampered rock star going through a mid life crisis in a truly ugly manner.
This isn't an album completely without merit: it's an audacious attempt at a stylistic overhaul, and there are one or two moments where sound and content gell together ideally - Try To Explain is the bruised, haunted reflection of previous cosmic odes like The Observer - but the failings of this album are too significant, too obviously self-inflicted to ignore. From star-eyed purveyors of technicolour beauty, The Flaming Lips of 2013 have found themselves gazing blankly into their navel, sitting idly by for inspiration that doesn't come. This doesn't have to be a fatal wound for the band: they've certainly bagged up plenty of jewels in their catalogue to give them the benefit of the doubt for another album or two before they get thrown on the garbage alongside Weezer. But right now, this is a muddied, half-baked and above all boring album that doesn't deserve the Flaming Lips name. Wayne Coyne might not be dying, but his songwriting sure is.