For most, the double album is a place to harness one’s conceptual ideas. For Wayne Coyne, it's a chance to deliberately lose the plot.
Upon its release in 1999, the cluttered-sounding, joy-pulsing The Soft Bulletin redefined what the Flaming Lips were capable of. The band, then, spent a decade building on that redefinition; building on their breakthrough LP's legacy.
The critical acclaim that crowned Coyne voice of a generation was, at first, emboldening: 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was a grandstanding symphony of life and death in ridiculous cartoon shades. Yet, soon said grandeur became a prison: 2006's At War with the Mystics a depressing mess that smacked of forced labor.
Shockingly over-produced and mastered so blaringly loud it sounds muffled, their 11th album found them functioning free from spontaneity; that famous Flaming Lips sense of daring sacrificed somewhere on the way to the 5.1 Surround Sound mix.
Embryonic, FL LP #12, marks a rebellion against the past Lips decade; a happy nose-thumbing at the notion of the band as ecstatic, candy-colored, psychedelic visionaries operating at vertiginous artistic heights.
A sprawling 18-song, 73-minute shambles, it was, if you'll believe Coyne, willingly conceived as a complete mess. Which doesn't really qualify this double-album as a concept album. The by-a-stretch unifying theme is tipped off by Embryonic's title: these tunes left in the birthing stages, half-formed, not brought to full fruition.
Which means, to listen to Embryonic is to encounter many meandering jams, whimsical oddities, and throwaway larks. It's a double album of half-formed ideas. A too-long set where lots of (the lots of) songs sound awkward next to each other; a pair of platters populated by uneasy bedfellows.
It's a work of formalized laziness; the sound of The Flaming Lips shirking off being some generation-defining band and just feeling the joy in being a garage-band.
Befitting a band happily knocking about ideas with no plans on turning them into anything too taxing, its hour-and-change sounds royally relaxed; which stand in stark contrast to the desperation that reigned last time out. Of course, where they previously toiled to create a Disneyist illusion of pantomimed perfection and happiness, here their more casual approach has yielded an album of eeriness, nastiness, and dread. Once again, the Flaming Lips are trying to convince you of something, yet imparting only the opposite.
In that spirit, this 2LP claims a heavy krautrock influence, but anyone expecting stripped-down workouts based on simple rhythmic repetition will be disheartened. Embryonic's focus on rhythm comes from, of course, turning it up really loud; songs often drowning in rhythm-section as basslines are bumped so high they distort, and drums crash in massive walls of gnashing clatter like saucepans thrown at sheet metal.
Jamming away, feeling no need to strain for stadium-sized anthemicism, Coyne’s croaky croon, so long the Lips’ signature instrument, is left on the shelf. From Passion Pit to the Minus Story to Windmill (to count the three most obvious), ‘the Coyne’ has become a vocal style to adopt; a cooler, next generation variant on ‘the Vedder.’ Yet, here, it’s never aired-out; instead hidden amidst grooves, obscured behind effects, buried underneath a vocoder. Befitting the 'anything goes' nature of the set, even Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins get lead vocal turns.
Needless to say, for many Embryonic will be a detestable sink into self-indulgence. For others, its anti-careerist jumble will be proof positive that the Flaming Lips’ genius knows no bounds.
The reality lies at neither extreme; Embryonic more a mixture of good and band that balances out in a less-than-thrilling middle. Sure, I dig the fact that it's not at all like At War with the Mystics. But acclaiming this rebellion as a work of greatness would be like straining to make two wrongs a right.
Record Label: Warner Bros.
Release Date: October 13, 2009