I napped through the latest Flaming Lips album. Twice.
But I actively listened to it, hands clasped beneath my chin, ears pressed against the speakers – in the classic “listening to music” pose – a few more times.
And the jury is still out.
“Embryonic,” the twelfth studio album by the prolific Flaming Lips, proves to be alternately soporific and fascinating. This record has been hailed as a “return” to the Lips’ roots, wherein Wayne Coyne and crew would reject the lush pop production of their more recent projects in favor of their original raw sound.
People who are only familiar with singles like “Do You Realize??” may be perplexed by The Flaming Lips’ early albums, like 1989’s “In a Priest Driven Ambulance” or 1992’s “Hit to Death in the Future Head.” In those early days, The Flaming Lips established themselves as freaky dudes – dudes who weren’t afraid to fill their songs with distortion, weird lyrics, or complex time signatures.
Initially, The Flaming Lips’ brand of psychedelic jam sessions was appreciated only on the outskirts. However, as their sound became more refined – or, as some fans might call it, “commercial” – they began to garner critical admiration.
The apex of that, I would argue, is when they really made it to commercials; their beautiful “Do You Realize??” was turned into a VH1 bump, and “W.A.N.D.” was used for a Dell Inspiron commercial.
I was excited when I heard that “Embryonic” would be circling back to noisy jams and tape loops. Although I love their catchy tunes as much as, or maybe even more than, their experimental work, I’m in the mood for some musical innovation.
If “Embryonic” really had experimental ambitions, then sadly, it comes up short. If, however, The Flaming Lips intended to put the listener in an embryonic state, as opposed to invoking the band’s “embryonic” stage, it sort of succeeds.
Which brings me back to my naptime. As the CD spun in my C: drive, I lay in bed listening, and the songs bled into each other – each one as dreamy and baroque as the one before. True to their roots, Coyne’s vocals wallow in reverb, and Kliph Scurlock, their newest drummer, bangs out a continuous charging beat.
The fact that this album had a heartbeat, intertwined with layers of muffled guitar and electronic squeals, definitely made me feel like an embryo.
Their sound this time around is more raw than “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” but in a different way than one would expect. More often than not, I’m reminded of sparse rock acts like The Kills or The White Stripes, or occasionally even Joy Division, who Coyne cited as the major influence for this album.
And yet, this vein of indie rock seems over-tapped by this point, leaving the overall sound sort of, well, anemic.
The Flaming Lips are aided along the way by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, generally yelping and howling like she did in the “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack, and last year’s hot band, MGMT. Quite frankly, these guest stars don’t help the tired double album; they only push a few stale songs into somewhat palatable territory.
Where an album like “The Soft Bulletin” was fantasia, “Embryonic” is mostly fugue. Each song dallies in minor keys, varying only in intensity. For instance, the opening track “Convinced of the Hex” is a fast, dark hustle. “Evil” is soft, yet foreboding. Dark, dark, dark abounds – yet a comforting sort of darkness. Embryonic imagery, ahoy!
And some songs insist upon themselves so much, that their darkness almost becomes cliché – like “See the Leaves,” which assaults us with a booming metal bassline, and Coyne moaning “See the leaves? / They’re dying again / See the moth? / It’s flying again.”
In “going back to their roots,” The Flaming Lips might have gone back too far at some points. Like, say, to being moody teenagers, convinced of their own depth.
And yet, despite the fact that I could easily hear this playing through tinny speakers at Urban Outfitters, this album leaves an overall good impression. It’s not inventive by any means, but what do you expect after 26 years of stretching musical boundaries?
“Embryonic” is perfect fare for a late autumn afternoon. It’s a chilly November, a murky fog, a pile of comforting blankets – and of course, a good incentive for a nap.