I had vaguely encountered The Flaming Lips – via the NME, or Later with Jools Holland – before attending on spec their set in, bizarrely, the dance tent of 2001’s V festival. But this dim name recognition, and a hazy memory of Wayne Coyne’s coat, were the sorts of things you learn through osmosis about any other band. Standing in that tent watching the Lips perform practically the entirety of their 1999 opus, The Soft Bulletin, was not, however, like watching any other band: that gig remains one of the most affecting I’ve attended. That evening’s version of ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’, I am big enough to admit on a regular basis, made me weak at the knees.
I confess, too, that the experience led to something of a Lips obsession: more shows followed, and more cover versions, and distinct over-playing of The Soft Bulletin (which, naturally, was never tarnished by such exposure). As the band toured to death their commercially successful follow-up, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, however, I got a little weary. The live shows began to be disconcertingly samey, and then came At War With The Mystics, an album so thin and confused that I may still have only listened to it three times.
I come bearing good news, then: I’ve already listened to Embryonic more, and I only bought it yesterday. Released earlier this month, Embryonic – from its cover art onwards – sees the band return to ground they last explored prior to the release of The Soft Bulletin. Sonically, it is the most adventurous record they have recorded since the quadrophonic excess of 1997’s Zaireeka; the angular difficulty, and pulsing bass, of the record recalls, too, the scuzzy doo-wop of Hit To Death In The Future Head . The other element of the album which recalls earlier times is its paranoia, its over-riding sense of the sinister. The Lips have come to be known as a life-affirming fun-time band, all cray-zee animal suits and glitter cannons, but here Steven Drozd sings that, “Love is powerful / But not as powerful as evil”, whilst elsewhere Coyne sings about a woman “without hope / without love”.
The band never abandoned their more uncomfortable side – as you know, Bob, ‘Do You Realize?’, from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, is about our irrelevance on the cosmic scale – but Embryonic puts it back at the centre of their project. Whimsy survives – Karen O’s animal noises and Wayne Coyne’s chuckles on ‘I Can Be A Frog’ come to mind – but it is sunk deeper into an uneasy world. From the hypnotic swagger of opener ‘Convinced of the Hex’, via the jarring bass shudders of ‘Evil’ and towards the gorgeous danger in ‘Powerless’ (where the first disc of this ‘double album’ ends), Embryonic explores what it is to think they’re out to get you – and to be spot on about it. This going back is no retrogressive step; this is an album doing and saying new things.
Like all double records, Embryonic is unwieldy. Those songs featuring star signs in their titles seem to be sketches of connective tissue; ‘Your Bats’ is a raggedy off-cut of a song, and some of the instrumentals (perhaps through design) aren’t memorable so much as they are harrowing at the time. But this is the most interesting – and interested – the Flaming Lips have been in years. On ‘The Ego’s Last Stand’, the opening track of the ‘second disc’, Coyne sings over shuffling, almost sneering, musical backing, “A man holds a gun / There’s no explanation / Oh, he shoots at the sun.” Shooting and suns were recurring themes on The Soft Bulletin, which sought sense in all things (its own opener, ‘Race For The Prize’, made questing scientists its heroes); Embryonic isn’t looking for answers – just a little peace. On its final track, “the sun’s gonna rise,” are the last words we hear. The record represents a long, but eventful and consistently rewarding, dark night of the soul.