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Back to Sequenza21
Thursday, April 06, 2006

What if you want to be both huge and tiny? Profound and silly? World famous and obscure? Both king and fool?

If you're Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips, you make an album like At War with the Mystics.

1999's Soft Bulletin had the wondrous curse of being (appropriately) lauded as a masterpiece, and 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, while saggy in places under the weight of expectations, still sounded fresh and almost bursting. To old time fans of The Lips, Soft Bulletin arrived like an affirmation of our gut instincts about the band, and if Yoshimi seemed a bit too postured (down to the bunnies in the videos), well, the band - formed in 1983 after all - had earned the privilege to indulge in whatever music and (music) business decisions they chose. Yoshimi is an almost great album; please don't think I'm slamming it. But The Lips were aiming for something grander than the trippy contemplation of the mysteries of the universe which animated all their earlier albums. It's as if they capitalized all their themes and italized all their tropes, and instead of winking at you as if you were in on the buzz they nodded at you as if they were teaching you an insight. The music was great; the trip was a bit of a bummer.

I'm guessing that The Lips weren't sure what kind of album they wanted to make after Yoshimi. Go back to Transmissions from the Satellite Heart to mine for pre-Soft Bulletin whimsy? Advance operatically to a logical successor to Yoshimi? It's like they want to be famous, really really bad, but they want to be famous on their own terms - which is admirable - but know in their hearts that their own terms won't make them famous. They want to make political statements: the first cut and single off Mystics, the wonderful Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, asks "if you could blow up the world with a flick of a switch, would you do it" and then proceeds to ask "with all your power, what would you do." The second cut calls on all self-called "free radicals" to perform some dearly needed self-introspection. And then, perhaps feeling too agit-propped, it's time to break out the Tull-fluted and Floyd-guitared vibe on The Wizard Turns On and the jangling eyesparks of Pompeii and Gotterdammerung and the gentle unwinding of Mr Ambulance Driver.

Perhaps after the thematically coherent Yoshimi The Lips wanted to make an album of songs (and some fine songs too), but on Wizards what I hear is a band who doesn't quite know what it wants to be, which must be disconcerting on one level for a band that's been together for 23 years. And I don't know whether, as a fan - and a man the same age as the musicians in the band - I should be happy or sad if in fact these questions of identity ARE intentional. Shouldn't we know what we want to be by now, and is the correct answer Yes or No? Wizards is a very very good introspective album from a previously extroverted band. I don't think it is an accident that this is the first Lips album I've heard made for the crashing side of a trip rather than the ascent.