I Wish I Could Go Back / Go Back In Time

The Flaming Lips - "Embryonic"

The Flaming Lips - "Embryonic"

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 [1995]. 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”.

Not so smiley anymore.

In happier times.

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.


6 thoughts on “I Wish I Could Go Back / Go Back In Time

  1. byfuselage says:

    Finally had a good listen to this too. A resounding return to engaging form after the utterly forgettable Mystics. It’s way more ragged and challenging than anything I’ve been listening to lately though, so am still working my way into it, but it already feels like it’ll end up a firm fav.

    It’s interesting reading about the albums more ‘jammy’ origins in Wayne’s recent Pitchfork interview: Him on bass and both Drozd and Kliph drumming was the basis for some tracks apparently. I think that really comes across in some of the songs. It feels like a ‘band’ album.

    As for older Lips moments, I too don’t mind admitting to teary eyes through most of the still breathtaking Soft Bulletin. And Yoshimi always suprises me when I actually put it on. I often make the mistake of thinking about it in terms of the day-glo pop moments like Fight Test and part 1 of the title track, when in fact it’s a much deeper and more electronic-based record than those songs might suggest.

    p.s. Best part of Embyronic? The return of flipping (pardon the pun) LOUD drumming. Kliph? Steven? Both? Don’t know, but I LIKE it!

  2. danhartland says:

    At last! 😛 Yes, it does feel more like a band album – the last few years have seen Wayne’s persona dominate the band, but here it feels part of a wider whole. I didn’t know about the jamming, but it makes sense – especially on those ‘unfinished’ songs the record has.

    Yoshimi is a fine record, yes. I don’t think it aims for the depth of feeling of Soft Bulletin, but it definitely has a musical depth all its own. It wasn’t the record I fell out with so much as the hoop-la surrounding it.

    The drumming – yes! But also the bass. Ivins the man!

  3. byfuselage says:

    Agree that this record seems a step back from the increasingly Wayne dominated version of the band. Which I think is for the best really. I love his ambition and imagination, but I think they’re more interesting when he’ spersuaded to dial down the zany somewhat.

    Re: Yoshimi. I must apologise, as I realised after I commented that I’d misunderstood your wearyness comment. Yes, the surrounding hoopla got very annoying. I don’t quite understand people loving that record, as good as it is, above Bulletin. Oh and I could happily go a lifetime without seeing another pic of Wayne crowd surfing in the inflatable sphere *le sigh*

    Have you seen Christmas on Mars Dan? I took it out from work but havn’t made it further than halfway through yet. The way it’s shot in grainy black and white with occasional bursts of colour (accompanied by what I can only describe as “Flaming Lips Noise”), is really quite cool. If only it was easier to tell what was supposed to be going on! And has less stilted dialogue!! Wayne painted green wearing obviously glued on antennae is quite amusing…though I’m sure its not intended to be lol.

  4. danhartland says:

    I have not seen Christmas on Mars! B mentioned it was one of those things that was more entertaining when they were spending years making it than when it was actually made, though. 😛 Alas! Would still be intrigued to see it, though … must try to do so without actually parting with cash for it. 😛


  5. Pingback: Noise Revival « By Fuselage

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