The Flaming Lips’ worst album--or is it? Round two

April 14, 2013

Criticism is at its best when it’s a spirited dialogue between two people who care passionately about the art. And I can think of very few folks besides Brendan Diamond who have cared as much about the Flaming Lips for as long as I have.

Within an hour of me posting my review of The Terror last week, Brendan had responded in the comments section of this blog, and the back-and-forth we began there and on Twitter was revelatory because of two wildly divergent but equally passionate views on the latest from one of the most important bands of our generation. And because the Flaming Lips are that important, I thought it was worth expanding on our discussion and sharing it here.

For the record, here is Brendan’s official bio: Brendan Diamond is a musician, blogger, and former future rock critic whose insane love of psychedelic music led him to write a dissertation on the relationship between music and memory. He lives in Chicago with his fiancée Michelle. You can read more of his ramblings on his new blog Waited A Light Year.

Brendan’s response to my initial review follows; then comes my response to his response, and then his response to my response to his response. Whichever side you take, you’ve got to grant that by the end of all of this, I’ve done my damnedest to articulate the issues I have with the album—something a few skeptics said I failed to do the first time—while Brendan has done his best to defend and champion it. We may even have spent more time on this endeavor than the band spent honing any of these tunes. (Ouch! I’m just keeding!)

Heya Jim,

First off, I know you don’t have thin skin (with the kinds of reviews you write, I imagine it’s got to at least be pretty calloused over by now), but I just want to say that I enjoy it more when we disagree. Part of my responses are always playing up for anyone who might read them, but you’ve been far and away my favorite rock critic for so goddamned long now that I just hope you know that everything I say, critical or not, is out of deepest respect and admiration. So let’s unpack this album, shall we?

One thing I think you’re right about is that context is needed when dealing with the Lips. I just think the context on which you focus is the stuff you’re seeing on TV and in the media—this persona Wayne & the Lips (which is kind of how the public face of the band seems to be of late) that, as you call them, Flaming Lips, Inc. seem to have adopted. But I think it’s important to separate Wayne & the Lips from the Flaming Lips. The former has for around 15 years now been this P.T. Barnum-on-mushrooms show, space bubble, balloons, confetti, projections—the works. The latter, however, is the experimental band that has given us everything from the burnout vibrations of Zaireeka to the blissed-out space opera of Yoshimi, always pushing the pop envelope—and more importantly, always a band, or—at least writing-wise—as much Steven Drozd’s band as Wayne Coyne’s. Onstage, Wayne is the undisputed fearless leader, but in the studio, Drozd has been the force behind a lot of what they’ve been doing musically for the last 15 years. [1] And it’s only felt to me like they weren’t really pushing forward one time over those 15 years.

At War with the Mystics was the first Flaming Lips album I’d ever heard that seemed like wheel-spinning; it sounded like the band had learned some lessons from their previous two records and were just fucking around in the studio. It led to some killer pop songs (“Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Free Radicals,” the second half of “It Overtakes Me” that sounds almost directly lifted from Meddle-era Pink Floyd), but also some super-duper snoozers. Chief among them was “Haven’t Got a Clue,” which seemed like a tuneless mess to me. I liked the direction of “Free Radicals,” a sort of spaced-out Prince vibe, and hoped the Lips would go that direction. Instead, when Embryonic dropped, they’d chosen to focus on what I thought was a tuneless “Haven’t Got a Clue” vibe. I was shocked, mainly because I had no idea it would work that well. The first five tracks of Embryonic are as intense and experimental as the Lips have ever been on record. I definitely thought that Embryonic was about six or seven tracks too long (like most double-length records), but it was so unexpected and such a left turn that I was willing to overlook it. [2]

Even if you don’t buy that or don’t like the musical direction they’ve taken, I still think the assertion that it’s all part of the same shtick is incorrect. They’ve revamped the live show following this album (I think even Wayne realizes that the happy-go-lucky P.T. Barnum thing has gotten old and is rather outdated for our current times [3]). But let’s leave the live show alone, because what this is really about is the album. You don’t like it. Cool. You’re entitled to that (I really hate it when people bitch about critics expressing their opinions; it’s like whining about a car salesman trying to get you to buy a car). I just feel like, for a band that you’ve championed—a band you introduced me to when I was up unconscionably late for a third grader back in, like, ’93, when you and Wyman were on Ed Schwartz’s show and I’d just had my tonsils out (weird memory, I know)—your review kind of blithely dismisses this album more because of the context than because of the music. And I find that unfortunate, not just because I really love it (“Try to Explain” is one of my favorite tracks of the year so far), but because I think, at the very least, there are tons of sonic experiments on here that are being ignored because of the greater issues you have with the overall Flaming Lips, Inc. But as far as the music goes, I submit that The Terror is at least as experimental as a good chunk of the Lips’ catalog, and it’s really an outgrowth of the apparently polarizing Embryonic. [4]

Now, I can understand why many Lips fans, particularly those who preferred the pop-heavy stuff off Soft Bulletin or even dug as far back as the dark-ish times of “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles” or “Slow Nerve Action” (still my favorite Lips tune) didn’t warm to Embryonic. But far from being the kind of record that signals the beginning of the end (say, Some Girls), I think it was another one of those patented left-turns the Lips seem to make ever handful of records (they did it on In a Priest Driven Ambulance and again on Zaireeka) that seems deliberately designed to alienate half of their audience. The Terror, then, stands to me as the logical outcome of Embryonic—it is to Embryonic what Hit to Death was to Priest or (to a lesser extent) what Soft Bulletin was to Zaireeka. In fact, I see it as a sort of anti-Bulletin: whereas the synths on that record were deliberately meant to make the music warmer, the synths on The Terror are meant to make them colder, more foreign, more alienating. [4]

That’s not to say The Terror is the equal of Soft Bulletin (or its superior follow-up, Yoshimi). Nor is it to say it’s as good as Transmissions from the Satellite Heart or In a Priest Driven Ambulance. But holding a band that produces four entirely perfect albums to such a standard for every single album is rather unfair. Is Green the equivalent of Document or Reckoning? Is Songs in the Key of Life the equivalent of Innervisions or Talking Book? Is Desire the equivalent of Blonde on Blonde or Bringing It All Back Home? I don’t think so, but that’s because it’s a comparison between perfect or near-perfect records with records that are merely very, very good. Sure, it’s disappointing when our favorite artists don’t give us masterpieces every time out, but rather than holding them to impossible standards (which I personally had to give up when I first heard Dylan’s abominable Under the Red Sky, which is way, way worse than any of his Christian-era albums), I think the record should be reviewed as an entity unto itself. [5]

As such, there are a number of redeeming things to find on here. Yes, “You Lust” goes on for too long. Yes, it takes longer for “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” to die than the damned butterfly itself would have. But “Look... The Sun is Rising” is a killer opener, and now-full-time drummer Kliph Scurlock tears it up. “Be Free, A Way” is kind of nonsensical to me, but I like its groove quite a bit. And as I mentioned earlier, I was floored by “Try to Explain,” responding emotionally to it in a way I simply haven’t to any Lips song since Yoshimi. The first several times I heard it, the vulnerability in Coyne’s voice moved me to tears. There’s a longing in “Try to Explain” that is palpable, and while it is probably supposed to be a love song or something, it almost feels like an answer to “Vein of Stars,” a longing for some kind of spiritual awakening, because, if even love is dead, what the hell is there left for someone who only believed in love to believe in? Lyrically, musically, emotionally—the song works on every level, reminding me of the very best the band is capable of.

I’m also a big fan of “You Are Alone.” Here’s a moment where I think I can guess the difference between our opinions: You’re probably bored to tears by the repetition of lyrics and melody that seems to go nowhere, whereas to me, that is precisely the point. It’s like a Jane Austen novel—it puts you directly in the emotional state of its narrator. And I groove on that. It’s like the comedown from a very long, very bad trip, with one person saying “you are alone” and the other saying “you’re not alone.” Which is it? Do we give in to the pain, the cynicism, the hurt and suffering, or is there a light at the end of the tunnel? It doesn’t say—it doesn’t even hint—it just leaves us hanging. Then there’s “Turning Violent,” which, to me, is a more condensed, more listenable sound collage in the vein of “Machine in India.” And “Always There... In our Hearts” closes out as kind of an echo of “Look... The Sun is Rising,” slowly building in intensity until it spins nearly out of control at the end. And again, it leaves us on an ambiguous note, as if the Lips are determined to seek out a way to punch us in the throats with this alienating new sensation they’ve found. There is no resolution; there is only going forward. And that can be the most terrifying thing of all. [6]

This is emphatically not a record for everyone. Neither is it a perfect record. People who are into the Lips’ poppier stuff and haven’t ventured back to, say, “Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory” [7] will probably be wondering what the hell all this sh*t and noise is; those who dig things like the vast majority of Telepathic Surgery or Hit to Death but were unimpressed by Embryonic won’t be embracing this anytime soon, either. And sure, there’ll be plenty who like the record strictly because it’s the Flaming Lips, and liking the Flaming Lips is cool now (like it wasn’t before?), but secretly hate it. But for this longtime Lips fan, I’m pretty sated. To me, the best analogy I can make is to Wilco’s excellent The Whole Love. That wasn’t a perfect record, either (“Rising Red Lung” makes me stabby), but there were several standout tracks that I absolutely adored, and one (“One Sunday Morning”) that hit me on such an emotional level that I broke down over it. For my money, “Try to Explain” is that song, and it’ll definitely be one of the tracks I play on repeat all year and end up adding to my Spotify Best of the Flaming Lips play list, right up there with “Slow Nerve Action” and “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain” and “Fight Test” and “Everything’s Explodin’” and, like, 70 other songs.

So there’s my two cents, anyways. It’s too bad you’re so low on this album. I’m pretty high on it myself. Oh well. At least you dig Parquet Courts.

All the best,

Brendan Diamond

I appreciate your engaging me on this album, Brendan, and doing it with so much obvious thought and effort. You haven’t changed my mind, and I likely won’t change yours, but that is not the point of criticism. One of the goals, the one on display here, is to make us think more deeply about the art in front of us.

Now, because the Flaming Lips are the Flaming Lips, and because they have been one of the most important bands in my life for three decades, I thought long and hard about The Terror before writing a word, living with it for a month in heavy rotation. Nevertheless, you raise a couple of points that I either hadn’t thought about enough or didn’t explain sufficiently in my review. I’ve marked those in your review above and will respond to them one by one, then shoot all of this back to you for any additional thoughts. I had the first word, so it only seems fair that I give you the last.

[1] Steven absolutely has been the musical engine of this band since The Soft Bulletin; before that, on Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic, that role was split between him and guitarist Ronald Jones, with the personality clash and the musical competition between the two producing some great results. But that’s ancient history, and while it’s true that Steven is about 90-percent responsible for the music in every tune since 2000, some rudimentary melodic ideas do originate with Wayne, while the concept and lyrical content almost always are 98-percent Coyne.

With that division of labor in mind, neither Steven nor Wayne is giving us their best here; far from it. To me, the music definitely is not pushing forward; it largely is lazy, airless, tired, bloated, repetitive, thin and unimaginative sonically, and, as noted earlier and most importantly, unmelodic and arrhythmic. The latter two traits are especially troubling, as not only is Steven author of some of the most indelible melodies in rock in the last 20 years, but he has long been one of the most inventive maestros of rhythm, melding the pure aggression and arena-rattling bombast of fellow iconic monster drummers John Bonham and Bill Ward with a very subtle and nuanced understanding of cutting-edge electronic grooves. (Radiohead’s got nothing on him.) But that invigorating mixture just isn’t happening here.

Wayne used to ruthlessly mock “art music,” like some of Sonic Youth’s output, for its offensive (to him and to me) lack of melody and rhythmic drive. He long espoused the merits of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd over a lot of underground avant-garde tedium. That Wayne never would have put his stamp of approval on most of this music—and the yea or nay over every sound on every Flaming Lips record still ultimately is his, not Steven’s or anyone else’s.

Conceptually, this is not the first time that Coyne has pondered the very dark flipside alternative to the good-time Day-Glo ideal that Wayne & the Lips have peddled onstage for the party-hearty Bonnaroo-type crowds of the last decade and a half. He’s waxed nihilistic in much deeper and more profound ways many times prior to The Soft Bulletin. One of the most striking for me is “Evil Will Prevail” on Clouds Taste Metallic, a song so fundamentally dark that it helped drive Jones out of the band, though the lyrics are almost haiku-like in their minimalism. The combination of those words—“With Loving hands/And their arms are stretched so wide they can’t seem to take a breath/Knowing evil will prevail”—with the contrasting sweet melody is what wallops the listener. Nothing on The Terror is as striking or as well-considered; to these ears, Coyne is just mumbling stray lines he’s scrawled in his notebook, or he’s babbling off the top of his head in a hoarse, unpleasant, and very limited voice which has seriously degraded from the undeniably sketchy but always endearing plaintive Neil Young whine of yore.

[2] Your take on At War with the Mystics is very much like my own, though I disagree with your fondness for Embyronic. As noted in my original review of The Terror, I’ve seriously reconsidered my initial three-and-a-half-star rating for Embryonic; now, I’d probably give it two stars on the four-star scale. When it came out, I think I was just happy to hear the band attempting a different, darker mood, but the album didn’t have legs for me the way every other Lips studio record has, keeping me coming back again and again as time progressed. Not long after its release, it quickly became the last Lips album I’d play again for pleasure—though that dubious honor now belongs to The Terror, which is what we’re supposed to be talking about here.

[3] Again, at the risk of another brief detour from the album at hand (context is important, dammit!), I will grant that it’s encouraging to see Wayne & the Lips freshening up the live show. Even if the music is extremely disappointing, playing the new album in its entirety in front of a massive outdoor festival-like crowd at SXSW was a brave move, and credit belongs where it is due.

[4] Ah, yes: You’re basically espousing here a theory I have long held about the Flaming Lips’ discography and the musical progression of this band—one which a lot of people close to the group have seconded, and which even some of the Lips themselves endorse. That is: For the last 23 years, the band has followed a pattern of releasing one incredible masterpiece representing a giant leap forward in terms of songwriting and musical ideas, followed by a lesser but still pretty great album consolidating those ideas and biding a little time until the next big artistic breakthrough. If you buy this theory, you have In A Priest Driven Ambulance (masterpiece, 1990) followed by Hit to Death in the Future Head (consolidation, 1992); Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (masterpiece, 1993) followed by Clouds Taste Metallic (consolidation, 1995), and The Soft Bulletin (masterpiece, 2000) followed by Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (consolidation, 2002).

Now, one can quibble, contending, for example, that Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a better album than The Soft Bulletin. But the theory still holds up in an historical context since the fundamental makeup of the band changed, as did the methods of songwriting and recording, with each of those albums I’ve deemed masterpieces. Jonathan Donahue and Dave Fridmann came into the mix with In A Priest Driven Ambulance, and the Lips began to use and abuse the studio in a whole new way; Drozd and Jones came on board with Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, and the band as a band became an almost superhuman foursome on the road and in the studio, and Drozd became the full-on melodic McCartney to Wayne’s conceptual Lennon while the group reinvented yet again its approach to recording with The Soft Bulletin, going whole-hog digital and full-on synth-crazy.

Setting side At War with the Mystics, which we perhaps can agree to categorize as a just-okay effort sort of listlessly adrift in its own orbit, if we carry the theory forward, you contend (and correct me if I’m wrong) that Embryonic was the leap forward and The Terror is the consolidation of yet another New Lips Sound, though you seem to like The Terror (masterpiece?) more than its predecessor. Either way, I’m not hearing the new as nearly new enough, or exciting enough, or resonant enough of the things I’ve always loved most about the Flaming Lips: that incredible mix of otherworldly studio ambience and very visceral rock ’n’ roll drive; that contrast between dark nihilism and despair and the belief in the transcendent power of love… or art, or rock, or beauty; that leavening of super-heavy with super-silly (“Oh My Pregnant Head” followed by “She Don’t Use Jelly”; “Christmas at the Zoo” paired with “Evil Will Prevail”; “It’s Summertime” versus “Do You Realize?”), and most of all the fragile but perfect balance of melody and noise or drone.

 [5] Though you earlier agree that, as with evaluating the latest offering by any band that’s existed for 30 years and 13 albums, a serious consideration of context absolutely is necessary, you now contend that, “The record should be reviewed as an entity unto itself.” I don’t think that’s possible because, above and beyond the history one may or may not have with the group, I for one never would have listened to The Terror several dozens times over the course of a month after so disliking it on the first few spins if this was not a new offering from a band that I care about so much and got so much better from for so long. But that’s an abstract point, as this isn’t some faceless new band, it’s the freaking Flaming Lips! Anyway, we need to get to song specifics, so let’s do some you say/I say opinionated track-by-track breakdowns of what you hear and what I hear.

 [6] B.D.: Yes, “You Lust” goes on for too long. Yes, it takes longer for “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” to die than the damned butterfly itself would have.

 You ain’t kidding, amigo, though I would add that these tracks have quite a few other problems besides length. The endless repetition of the words “Lust to succeed” in some weird B-movie spy accent in “You Lust” not only is an annoying sonic tic that is old and irritating by the end of the first listen, but its relationship to the other lyrics (“You got a lot of nerve/A lot of nerve to f**k with me/Better kill your emperor”) throws me for a loop, unless Wayne actually is boasting Caligula-like that absolute power has corrupted absolutely, and even at this point of fundamentally questioning my faith in him, I’m not quite ready to go there. Anyway, there is no hook and no rhythmic drive and no interesting sonic experimentation I can discern, and maybe you can’t, either, since you say nothing else about those 13 minutes and five seconds.

About half as long, “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” is little better. Again, we get shuffling electronic percolating instead of an engaging rhythm; swelling synth sounds and a little unremarkable chugga-chugga guitar in place of hooks; no actual dynamic developments or shifts in the song’s arrangement, and Wayne tunelessly and in that shot-to-hell voice spouting meaningless mumbo-jumbo (“If you’ve ever really seen the sun rise/You will see how many times it tries”) in what I hear as a pale approximation of questioning mood songs such as “What is the Light?” from The Soft Bulletin.

B.D.: “Look... The Sun is Rising” is a killer opener, and now-full-time drummer Kliph Scurlock tears it up.

Again, not hearing it. That little synth run is the opposite of a hook—it’s alienating and grating—and Kliph, who isn’t half the drummer Steven is (which makes him merely better than nine out of 10 rock drummers today), to me is doing a computer-looped, static, and uninteresting imitation of Steven circa “Pilot Can at the Queer of God,” which is to say early Nick Mason or Ringo on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Once more, we get faux-funky guitar choogling instead of interesting six-string sounds or soloing, and Wayne sing-speaking his vocal and introducing the big underlying theme of the album, which is, “Love is always something/Something you should fear.” Coming from a less enlightened soul, we would hear that as the borderline misogynist frat-boy bullsh*t it may well be. Or do you agree that love is something to fear? (I don’t.)

B.D.: “Be Free, A Way” is kind of nonsensical to me, but I like its groove quite a bit.

Groove? What groove? That microwave-oven/vacuum-cleaner hum in the distant background? Um, okay; to each his own. Can’t argue with you on the nonsensical (“Did good, baby/So we can go/The time right now/Thing is/The sun shines now/But we’re so alone/It’s not, ’tis not/The light/That shines”), but the only thing I like here is the “am I floating or drowning?” ambience, which is not enough to sustain 5:13, and which, again, the Lips have done much better before (on all of Zaireeka, for example, or the soundtrack for Christmas on Mars, or, most brilliantly and in an actual song, on “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” which opens Clouds Taste Metallic).

 B.D.: I was floored by “Try to Explain,” responding emotionally to it in a way I simply haven’t to any Lips song since Yoshimi. The first several times I heard it, the vulnerability in Coyne’s voice moved me to tears. There’s a longing in “Try to Explain” that is palpable, and while it is probably supposed to be a love song or something, it almost feels like an answer to “Vein of Stars,” a longing for some kind of spiritual awakening, because, if even love is dead, what the hell is there left for someone who only believed in love to believe in? Lyrically, musically, emotionally—the song works on every level, reminding me of the very best the band is capable of.

Yes, this by far is the best moment on the album, and a big part of the reason I give it half a star instead of none. Here, Wayne hints at what this album could have been: a dark night of the soul classic, from the midst of whatever crisis of faith or mid-life torments are plaguing him, giving us for the first time his full-length answer to the third albums by Big Star or the Velvet Underground, Pink Moon by Nick Drake, or Tonight’s the Night by Neil Young (full-length because he has channeled a similar vibe and these kinds of emotions in individual songs before, say, on “There You Are” from In A Priest Driven Ambulance or on a lot of The Soft Bulletin). The voice still leaves much to be desired, though—is the muted delivery because that is what the songs requires, a la Pink Moon, or is it because that’s all Wayne can muster?—and though the mood of longing, romantic or spiritual, is indeed palpable, the lyrics fall short.

Wayne is examining an unspecified relationship that has fallen apart—“A love that explodes/Convulsing your body/Your only hand extending in the deep/Try then walking away on a bridge to nowhere/To nowhere, to no one”—but unless I’m missing it, he is taking absolutely none of the blame for the death of this love: “Try to explain why you’ve changed/I don’t think I’ll understand.” For me, that sort of brutally honest self-examination and possible confession might have elevated this song from a moving mood piece to a true masterpiece. It’s a missed opportunity, and a rare example of the once fearless Wayne avoiding really looking at himself in the mirror.

B.D.: I’m also a big fan of “You Are Alone.” Here’s a moment where I think I can guess the difference between our opinions: You’re probably bored to tears by the repetition of lyrics and melody that seems to go nowhere, whereas to me, that is precisely the point. It’s like a Jane Austen novel—it puts you directly in the emotional state of its narrator. And I groove on that. It’s like the comedown from a very long, very bad trip, with one person saying “you are alone” and the other saying “you’re not alone.” Which is it? Do we give in to the pain, the cynicism, the hurt and suffering, or is there a light at the end of the tunnel? It doesn’t say—it doesn’t even hint—it just leaves us hanging.

Hanging indeed, like that horribly annoying sound you used to get to remind you to hang up your land line when you left it off the hook. Cheap joke, but you’ve already nailed my critique, so I have little else to say. Except: Jane Austen? Really?

B.D.: Then there’s “Turning Violent,” which, to me, is a more condensed, more listenable sound collage in the vein of “Machine in India.”

See, I never much liked “Machine in India” either, much less the other Lips “sound collage” you mention, which I’ll deal with shortly and separately. For me, “sound collage” always has been a fancy way of saying “pointless studio tomfoolery and basically filler,” and that’s been the case since freaking “Revolution 9.” Besides, this band never could top the endless Metal Machine Music-style sonic eff-you that closes Hit to Death in the Future Head and which was (choose one) either more fun or more crazy-making by far than this, which aspires to be an actual song via the inclusion of some “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”-type lyrics (“Turning violent/Tell me about it/Turn, turn around/You aren’t violent/Don’t turn violent, oh”). Yawn. Again, where’s the Zep or Floyd rock power and accessibility in this? The Aphex Twin was more fun!

B.D.: And “Always There... In our Hearts” closes out as kind of an echo of “Look... The Sun is Rising,” slowly building in intensity until it spins nearly out of control at the end. And again, it leaves us on an ambiguous note, as if the Lips are determined to seek out a way to punch us in the throats with this alienating new sensation they’ve found. There is no resolution; there is only going forward. And that can be the most terrifying thing of all.

You’re right about the intensity of this track, and it really is the only one that presents much dynamic diversity on the album. But again, we get that horrible guitar sound (Can’t Derek Brown do anything else? We know Steven can!), nary a melodic hook in the vocals or instrumentation, and a thematic ambiguity you find powerful (or something) while I find it clashing jarringly with the worldview always presented by this band in the past: “Always there, in our hearts/Fear of violence and of death/Always there, in our hearts/There is love and there is fame.”

Okay, the duality of man; got it: neither entirely good nor wholly evil, both co-exist. But the choice is between love and… fame? Really, Wayne? That isn’t even as deep as whatever rock-star crisis our mutually beloved Roger Waters was pondering in The Wall. “Always there, in our hearts/There is evil that wants out/Always there, in our hearts/There are sorrows and sadness/Always there, in our hearts/Never moving, standing/Always there, in our hearts/Something good that we can’t control/Can’t control, can’t control, can’t control.”

You say ambiguity; I say confusion. Is it the always-there evil that we can’t control, or the “something good”? If you’re going Lord of the Flies-style into this “we are inherently good/we are inherently evil” debate, you don’t have to take a side (it’s both of course!), but you do have to suggest, for the purposes of engaging storytelling if nothing else, the trigger prompting the query. And, again, the best we get from Wayne is… fame. Which more than the moral debate about selling out that you first attacked in the blog comments section for my initial review has everything to do with what I intended amid all that talk of TV commercials to be my grand thesis: The Flaming Lips now are a hollow shell of a band, more of a corporation than an artistic entity, moving forward primarily because of inertia. I led with that chicken stuff because I don’t believe they still are making art together because they love to make art together (which they once did, in part if not exclusively). I think they’re doing it now largely because they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Hit me back on any or all of the above, but one more general observation here: Quoting your own words as I just did, it really doesn’t seem to me that you love or even like this album all that much. Star-ratings and grades are reductive and far (far, far) inferior to measured assessments, but they are valuable for one thing: They force you to stop equivocating and clearly sum things up. So, dear Brendan, how do you rate these nine songs on the four-star scale? (I showed you mine, you show me yours.)

 [7] I never much liked “Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory”—to me, the standout moment and real step forward on Telepathic Surgery is “Chrome Plated Suicide”—but I went back to Staring at Sound to see what I’d written about that song there, and I never really elaborated on my dislike for it. Here is what I did write, for the sake of context, which may be more important and illuminating.

“Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory” is a twenty-three-minute tape experiment that starts with the sound of a revving motorcycle, then shifts through several bouts of free-form jamming. “It was our attempt to do an ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,’” Wayne said, but the Pink Floyd track on Atom Heart Mother is only half as long, and it combines sound effects and music to tell a story, albeit the slight one of roadie Alan Stiles frying up his morning eggs.

“After the first two albums, bands kept coming up to us and asking us how we did things, and I think that encouraged us to keep exploring; that’s why most of our energy on Telepathic Surgery was spent on ‘Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory,’” Wayne said. At one point the group intended to fill an entire vinyl album side with the track, but it ultimately appeared only on the CD. “I still felt like we were trying new things in the studio, and we didn’t care if the songs didn’t make sense.”

That passage and what follows in the Telepathic Surgery chapter of the book seems striking now in that The Terror clearly is not the first time the band has indulged in endless unlistenable wankery that some (you, for example) call experimentation and a brave step forward but which others (me and, say, Wayne’s first true love, Michele Vlasimsky) deem an unmitigated disaster and a serious misstep. In fact, Staring at Sound goes on to relate how “Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory” was the point where Vlasimsky, who managed the Lips in the key early days and brought them to the attention of Warner Bros. Records, parted ways with the band and its business dealings, as well as breaking up with Wayne romantically.

Now we have another controversial experiment, another serious crossroads for the band, and the end of another long-term and once-idealized relationship with another Michelle. Déjà vu? Maybe. But please don’t make me listen to The Terror again. It only brings me sadness and frustration.

And The Last Word to Brendan Diamond (that’s how much I respect his opinions, however wrong he may be)

J.D.: That little synth run is the opposite of a hook—it’s alienating and grating.

Oh, Jim, you sound like Kot criticizing “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” because Coyne’s “Yeah yeah yeah” refrain annoyed the hell out of him—when that was the point! That “little synth run” is supposed to be alienating and grating, creating an air of discomfort and confusion. As I said earlier, this is a sort of anti-Soft Bulletin, using those synths to sound utterly like madness. It’s not necessarily everyone’s taste, I understand, but it does crack me up that your opening critique of my critique of your critique (how’s that for meta?) is a critique on the very point of the sound.

J.D.: Kliph, who isn’t half the drummer Steven is (which makes him merely better than nine out of 10 rock drummers today), to me is doing a computer-looped, static, and uninteresting imitation of Steven circa “Pilot Can at the Queer of God,” which is to say early Nick Mason or Ringo on “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

As you rightly point out, Kliph isn’t the drummer Steven is, but since Steven is one of the greatest drummers in rock history, that’s kind of like comparing Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys (an outstanding, if derivative, guitarist) to Jimi Hendrix. It’s funny, though… you’re a drummer, and I play pretty much every instrument except drums, so what you hear as a pale imitation of “Pilot Can,” and the relationship between, say, Mason on “The Nile Song” or Ringo on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” I hear as four very, very distinct drum lines (though now that I listen to all four simultaneously in my head, I can kind of hear the relationship between “Nile Song” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” funny enough; I like the former better). But really, I’m not sure about this “computer-looped” drumming you speak of, because that sounds pretty live to me. No, Kliph isn’t the human metronome that Steven was at his finest, but I still think he’s one of the finest drummers going today. I’ll have to see the song performed live and report back once I see Kliph bang the hell out of his skins.

J.D.: Coming from a less enlightened soul, we would hear that as the borderline misogynist frat-boy bullsh*t it may well be. Or do you agree that love is something to fear? (I don’t.)

First of all, Wayne Coyne is an enlightened soul? Really? We’re talking about the same guy who wrote a song-story about his dogs, right? The same guy who wrote, “I'm standin’ in a cylinder/Seein' all the bleedin’ vaginas” (and yes, I know he goes on to rhyme “vagina” with “Messiah,” and yes, that much is freaking awesome)? My point is that Wayne is many things, but I don’t think he’s particularly enlightened. That said, I don’t quite get the misogyny in “Love is always something/Something you should fear,” either. No, I do not think love is something one should fear; but I’m also not a 53-year-old soon-to-be divorced man, either. I’ve watched plenty of people bust up from relationships and marriages that have lasted less than half as long as Coyne’s, and they’d probably agree with that assessment. I’m not trying to read too much autobiography into Wayne’s lyrics here; I’m just saying that this song’s narrator doesn’t seem too far removed from those I know who’re just getting out of long-term relationships—even if they’re the ones at fault for the breakup.

J.D.: Groove? What groove? That microwave-oven/vacuum-cleaner hum in the distant background?

James, you crack me up ever so consistently. THIS is the critic I remember! And while I don’t know what the hell you’re referring to (I can only assume it’s Fridmann’s vocal manipulation on “Be Free, A Way”), this is such an outstanding line that I’m just gonna let it pass.

J.D.: Unless I’m missing it, he is taking absolutely none of the blame for the death of this love: “Try to explain why you’ve changed/I don’t think I’ll understand.” For me, that sort of brutally honest self-examination and possible confession might have elevated this song from a moving mood piece to a true masterpiece. It’s a missed opportunity, and a rare example of the once fearless Wayne avoiding really looking at himself in the mirror.

I have to think that you’ve been happily married to Carmél for so long that you’ve forgotten what the pain of a real breakup feels like. While I don’t think it’s necessarily autobiographical, Coyne has said in interviews that The Terror is supposed to be an album essentially about the death of love, or a world without love, and how terrifying that prospect is. And if we’re talking about a breakup, well, no, this isn’t the mature, reasoned response that comes after a fair amount of introspection and guidance, of the healing over of scars and the realization that it takes two to cause a breakup. “Try to Explain” is more immediate. I can personally recall a breakup with a girl I was crazy about; it was entirely my fault, but in the days and weeks that followed the immediacy of the breakup, I simply could not understand why she decided she didn’t want to see me anymore. Now, that probably is more expected of the young twenty-something I was back then than it would be a guy in his mid-50s, but as I said earlier, I don’t think of Coyne as being particularly enlightened; I think of him as the eternal prankster, a sort of 21st-century musical Ken Kesey. And as you well know, Kesey didn’t always make the brightest moves, either. People slammed his Sailor’s Song as too dark and too misogynistic, too—a book, I note, written when Kesey was approximately the same age as Wayne is now. I find it a fascinating parallel between the two.

J.D.: Again, where’s the Zep or Floyd in [“Turning Violent”]?

Zep? I don’t know. I’ve never heard much Zeppelin in the Lips’ stuff. Maybe a little Houses of the Holy (which I think you and I agree is Zep’s best record), but the Lips have never had the kind of blues influence the majority of Zep’s catalog contains. As for Floyd, there’s plenty of Floydian precedent for “Turning Violent”—the mechanical noises of “Welcome to the Machine,” the weird sound collage-y stuff on “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” and particularly, the “screaming guitar” section of “Echoes”—how do you not hear that? That freaked-out section from “Echoes” was the first thing I thought of when I first heard “Turning Violent.” I actually thought (very) slightly less of the track for being so overt!

J.D.: Please don’t make me listen to The Terror again. It only brings me sadness and frustration.

I promise I won’t. So long as you don’t make me listen to Bat for Lashes ever again!

The thing for me with rating Flaming Lips records is that I’m not really able to be all that objective. For one, I love this band, and having never gotten fully absorbed into the rock-crit universe, I never had to be anything but a fan. In addition, I am deeply affected by bands who continue to change their sound, particularly those who do so when their fame is at its peak. I don’t think the Lips have ever been more popular or well-known. Sure, part of that is due to Wayne’s omnipresence in TV ads, radio shows, other people’s records, and so on; but a lot of it is due to the word-of-mouth that’s been building for two decades. Think about it: In 2001, when the band was on the precipice of releasing Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Flaming Lips were considered one of the greatest one-hit-wonder bands of all time. They’ve had a few songs chart since then (most notably “Do You Realize??”), and now are (fairly, in my view) considered legendary elder statesmen of rock.

That’s why I mention the changing sound thing. Hearing Embryonic and The Terror, I’m struck by just how different they sound from the band that put out Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin. The heart of the band (Wayne and Steven and Michael and Dave) is still the same one that was on those two masterpieces, but there is a harder edge now. My worry after hearing At War with the Mystics was indeed that the Flaming Lips, one of the most musically daring and adventurous bands I’ve ever encountered, had indeed grown complacent, cool with re-hashing sounds they’d already used, tricks they’d already tried, not really expanding or growing but just doing this PT Barnum on acid shit over and over again. Embryonic came like a breath of fresh air, and The Terror, I think, elaborates on a lot of the former’s themes of alienation, cynicism, and a changing world that is more isolated and digitized than it was even in the time of Yoshimi.

To be fair, The Terror isn’t a masterpiece on the level of the four Lips records I consider perfect (In a Priest Driven Ambulance, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, The Soft Bulletin, and Yoshimi). Nor is it a three-and-a-half-star raver on the level of the band’s second tier of excellence (Clouds Taste Metallic, Hit to Death, Oh My Gawd!!, and the version of Embryonic I made myself that pares it down to 12 tracks). But I don’t think I’m overshooting to put it in the third tier of Lips releases. The highs (aside from “Try to Explain”) aren’t as high as, say, those on At War with the Mystics, but neither are the lows as low as “Mr. Ambulance Driver” or “Vein of Stars,” which moved the band firmly into soft-rock territories that were rather a different kind of frightening.

So I’d place this firmly in the three-star camp—perhaps 3¼ stars, if such a thing existed. It’s not a four-star masterpiece or even a three-and-a-half rave, but I truly believe it to be an excellent record, one worthy of multiple listens. There is an overall feeling I get when listening to it: a despair that sits in the air heavily and demands to be dealt with. And I like that about it.

In all honesty, I’d love it if the Lips would eventually release another record that would supersede Yoshimi and Priest as my Flaming Lips go-to albums. And they have surprised me before. But if that never happens, I’d be happy if their albums continued to be this good. At the very least, they’d be doing better than the Rolling Stones were at 30+ years. And better than Aerosmith ever was, period.