Last week, New York Times magazine critic Sam Anderson—who has a sidelight “Tweeting the best sentence I read every day”—singled out and passed along to his 10,000 followers something from one of my books.
You think I'm making chicken bc you like it, Jim, but I'm just making chicken bc I like to make chicken. (wayne coyne on artistic success)— Sam Anderson (@shamblanderson) April 6, 2013
(quoted by jim derogatis in 'staring at sound: the true story of oklahoma's fabulous flaming lips')— Sam Anderson (@shamblanderson) April 6, 2013
At the time it was first published, in 2006, that quote seemed profound in its typically folksy, self-effacing, P.T. Barnum-meets-Will Rogers way. Though, to be clear, in the nearly three decades that I’ve been following the Flaming Lips—most of that time as the most dedicated sort of fan—I never have entirely bought that Mssrs. Coyne, Ivins, Drozd & Co. ever “just made art for art’s sake.”
Sure, these Okies’ devotion to sonic tomfoolery was a big part of things. But so were a lot of other factors, including ego, artistic ambition, and testosterone-feuled competition (whether from the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth in the early days, Mercury Rev in the middle period, or the most recent Pitchfork hypes of late). Oh, and do not underestimate the desire to earn enough filthy lucre to avoid ever having to labor again as a fry cook at Long John Silver’s, which Wayne did for 11 years, including a ridiculously long stint that came even after his band signed to Warner Bros. Records.
For the last few years, however, that quote has been 100-percent bullsh*t. The Flaming Lips continue now for the same reasons that the hollow shell of any band that’s become more of a corporation than an evolving artistic entity continues: inertia, an easy annual income, a sense of responsibility to the employees, and the lack of the courage or the imagination to do anything different. “Play another festival, sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to another giddy crowd, and roll out the space bubble again? Sure, why not! What else would we do?”
When did this long, sad decline begin? Certainly preceding the band’s thoroughly mediocre last album Embryonic, which I now will admit I was much too kind to upon its release in 2009, much as I was to Monster by R.E.M. in 1994, another turning point when a beloved band broke my heart by starting to become everything it once opposed. In retrospect, the roots of the Lips’ rot go back to the long period during which they just flogged the commercial bejeezus out of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, seemingly content to not even consider breaking more musical ground. Eventually, though, we got At War with the Mystics, a decidedly mixed effort that clearly represented a fork in the road.
The Flaming Lips took the wrong path, to be certain, and that’s how we come to now have unlucky album No. 13, the dire, dismal, and depressing dud called The Terror, which arrives amid an avalanche of corporate hype unprecedented even by these hucksters’ standards, starting with their Super Bowl commercial, rolling through a blitz of shilling last month at South by Southwest, and capped by Coyne’s “I’m no longer even pretending this has anything to do with my music” presence in that ubiquitous Virgin Mobile television commercial.
The corporate line on the darker turn of these nine joyless tracks is that death has been on our philosophical bandleader’s mind of late—the death of Mother Earth and all that kind of hippie hoo-ha, yeah, but the death of romance, too. Sayeth the artist in the Warner Bros. press release: “We want, or wanted, to believe that without love we would disappear, that love, somehow, would save us that, yeah, if we have love, give love and know love, we are truly alive and if there is no love, there would be no life. The Terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on... we just go on… there is no mercy killing.”
Not explicitly part of the sales pitch but certainly implied in the selling is that last summer, Coyne separated from his common-law wife of the last quarter-century, she of the famous “I ♥ Michelle” button back in the alternative era. “For me, it was sort of an embracing of hopelessness. Just saying, this hope that you have in this, just let it die, and try something else,” Coyne told Mojo. “Michelle and I had been together a long, long time, 25 years. If I’d died two years ago, that would have been successful.”
Yes, well, personal travails aside (and this is a record review, not a continuation of the biography, after all), if the Flaming Lips had ended early in the new millennium, that would have been successful as well—or at least more successful artistically than what the band has become. Here, it is thoroughly lacking in melody, lugubrious and enervating in rhythm, void of anything at all to say in the lyrics, thoroughly bankrupt of new ideas on the sonic palette, and, to sum it all up, a stone cold drag. And no, that isn’t because the Lips can’t do “darker” music; some of their finest moments (“Five Stop Mother Superior Rain!” “You Have to Be Joking (Autopsy of the Devil's Brain)!” “When Yer Twenty Two!” “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles!”) brilliantly wallowed on the dark side. They just don’t care enough to try that hard anymore.
Unending turds from The Terror such as “You Lust,” “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” and the title track aren’t even as memorable in a background-music way as the instrumental stretches of Zaireeka or the tossed-off soundtrack for Christmas on Mars—another turning point, in retrospect, since, if it had been a success instead of a novel footnote, it might have given our auteur the second act of his artistic career, transforming himself from the low-budget maestro of a modern Pink Floyd into the second coming of David “Eraserhead” Lynch.
Instead, at age 52, we have an older but much more foolish and seemingly thoroughly lost and rapidly fading Technicolour guru who may not have run out of shtick or homemade tricks onstage quite yet but who has at long last depleted or betrayed a musical vision that gave us one of the richest and most consistently rewarding catalogs of the indie ’80s, the alt ’90s, and the early days of the new millennium.
Those seven masterpieces and three merely pretty great albums still stand in the band’s wake, of course, so is it cruel to so thoroughly harsh out on a long-time hero now? Maybe. But if I see that “Retrain Your Brain” ad one more time, I’m gonna hurl this CD duct-taped to a brick at my flat-screen TV.
The Flaming Lips, The Terror (Warner Bros.)
Rating on the four-star scale: ½ star.
(But don’t take my word for it! If, like me, you are reluctant to believe the worst of this band until hearing for yourself, this turkey is streaming for free at NPR Music.)