Music Reviews
At War with the Mystics

Flaming Lips At War with the Mystics

(Warner Bros) Rating - 9/10

The Flaming Lips, America's greatest non-indie indie band, are returning to their roots. I'm not talking about the sudden reemergence of distorted guitars that harken back to the pre-Zaireeka sound of our favorite, tripped-out Okies. No, this time they've set the wayback machine to the early 70's, their wonder years. You can hear it all over At War with the Mystics, from the muffled soul beat of Mr. Ambulance Driver, to the stunning Close to the Edge break in the middle of It Overtakes Me..., to the Echoes-era Floyd of Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung, and on and on through the pre-Lamb Genesis of My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion... In fact, some of the reference points are so obvious, Pompeii in particular, that the stylistic markers must have been the result of a conscious choice. Which begs the question, why, or at least, why now?

The Lips, still inexplicably entrenched at the corporate behemoth Warner Bros., have just come off a decade of intense critical adulation and increasing media exposure. It's been pretty clear for a while that Mr. Coyne and company are not shying away from success the way Mr. Yorke et al did once they were vaulted to demigod status. Radiohead, releasing Kid A in 2000, seemed to be reacting to the potential that increased attention would lead to artistic compromise. The Lips astutely realize that in today's juvenile, hormone-excited pop culture, they are never going to be successful enough to make that an issue in the same way it was for, say, Springsteen with Born in the USA. The only risk they run is being dropped from a major label with the resources to promote them beyond an independent's dreams. But in the end, this is a band with a huge following that isn't anywhere near the dustbin of obscurity, and the new album proves that they know it and are confident enough to just be themselves. If every decade or so they appear in a tv commercial, or have a hit, then its because their circuitous path has momentarily, and probably accidentally, crossed into the current zeitgeist.

So here's a band still in their prime, doing their own thing and with a sweetheart deal to boot. Why the sudden burst of nostalgia? Searching the memory banks for precedents of established bands mining their formative years isn't very illuminating. The Beatles did it while imploding on Let it Be. Dylan did it in the early 90's, apparently (and successfully) to refocus a legendary career in shambles. Could it just be a bout of middle age reflection descending on Wayne's graying curly head? Nothing seems to fit too easily. For one thing, Mystics is as adventurous and forward looking as they've ever been in terms of sound, outside of the experimental Zaireeka. This is a 21st century schizoid headphones album that pays tribute to the classic headphones albums of the past. My theory is this: they are taking advantage of their relative success and security to celebrate the music they grew up loving and to reaffirm that despite the congealing retrospective critical derision, a lot of that music was quite beautiful.

So what we find on Mystics are long, lovely pastoral passages, joyfully freaky guitar outbursts, thundering bass lines that would have made Chris Squire wet his pants, and waves of synths and mellotrons appearing in gorgeous swells. In short, it's one sonic surprise after another, which makes it less immediately approachable than Yoshimi or Soft Bulletin, but no less satisfying in the long run. Even the seemingly superfluous moments, like the flute coda to The Sound of Failure/Its Dark...Is it Always This Dark, ache with the beauty of a sun-drenched meadow.

I guess you could write another review looking at the band's musings on power and their numerous swipes at Bush, but I don't have the space and besides, the garden of aural delights makes the politics irrelevant. More interesting is their preoccupation with death, which has taken on a new life. I'll leave that for other reviews to ponder. I'm here to tell you that this is more wonderful music from America's best band and hence automatically on the short list of best albums of the year so far.