If you have read other reviews of the new Flaming Lips record, Embryonic, you might be worried. You might have read about how “experimental” Embryonic is and you might have thought, “Hey, wait a minute – isn’t ‘experimental’ the term critics use to try to praise something that is bad, but bad in a perversely interesting way?” And you’d be right to think that. But Embryonic is really not that big of a leap for the Flaming Lips to have made from At War with the Mystics. In fact, if you look at their entire 20-something year career, it’s kinda hard to pin down their sound anyway. But I’m speaking as a guy who actually owns their awesomely underrated early albums like In a Priest-Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head.
The Pitchfork kids like Embryonic, which shows some rare good taste on their part, but they try to praise the album by damning the Lips’ other recent works, as if Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and The Soft Bulletin aren’t skull-crackingly magnificent listens in their own right (or in anyone’s own right, for that matter. Who out there has listened to both of those albums and found them lacking in melodious mind-blowing beauty?). The P-forkers even try to scare off the non-hipster-douchebag crowd by comparing Embryonic favorably to the Lips’ real experimental album, Zaireeka. While Embryonic does some sonic stuff that you haven’t heard from the Lips before, I’ve always understood the Flaming Lips as the best band ever at trying stuff they’ve never tried before. They’re willing to fail in a way almost no other band is, and I think that’s why they fail so rarely (or never, really, by my count). Am I about to say that Embryonic is a noble failure? No. It’s actually an incredibly compelling, noisy, psychedelic rock record that gets more splendid with each listen. I literally hear something new every single time I listen to Embryonic. I’m listening to it on headphones as I write this and am having a very good time indeed.
Before I get too much into the nuts and bolts of why Embryonic is arguably the best rock album of the year, I want to take a second to discuss the Pitchfork modus operandi for a second. If you’re blessed enough to inhabit a universe wherein you don’t know what the hell Pitchfork is, I suggest you pop on over to http://pitchfork.com, read a couple of their reviews, and see for yourself the kind of pretentious douchebaggery that is their bread and butter. See, they can’t stand the idea that other people might like the music they like, so they find the most unlistenable shit on earth and sing its praises, practically daring us lowly peasants to like it. For instance, they love Wavves, a band rational people would like to stuff into the business end of a wood-chipper. But that’s the whole Pitchfork shtick. If a band becomes too well-known, they can kiss the Pitchfork-love goodbye (see My Morning Jacket for examples of this). Of course, every once in a while, Pitchfork can’t help but honestly love something that is unassailably awesome, like the Hold Steady. Or the Flaming Lips. But with Embryonic, the P-forkers seem to think they’ve found a Flaming Lips album that only an internet hipster can love. And they’re wrong. My fiance, known to those who know her as the absolute antithesis of the internet hipster, likes Embryonic. Because it’s weird. Point is, Pitchfork is always wrong – even when they’re right, they say it in a wrong sort of way. Except this one time, when they created what may actually be my favorite album review of all time. I never get tired of posting that link.
Anyway, let’s talk Embryonic. Thematically, it’s the same as every Flaming Lips album ever: good, evil, life, love, and death. The Lips like to talk about the big stuff and they do it better than most bands (sorry, 8th grade girls, but “Your Body Is a Wonderland” is not deep, big picture stuff. Nor is, I dunno, anything by Green Day), but there’s a new philosophical wrinkle running throughout Embryonic that I happen to like very much: it deals a lot with annihilating the ego, which is a subject I think is very worthy indeed. Perhaps that’s (partly) because I have a pretty huge, exceedingly healthy ego, and it gets me into mostly avoidable trouble. So a soundtrack for its demise is literally music to my ears.
Embryonic, then, is kind of an existential/psychological freak-out (on the moon? I don’t know why I wrote that, but it fits, dammit, and I’m keeping it), starting with “Convinced of the Hex,” a song whose female subject says, “‘You think there’s a system/ that controls and affects/ You see, I believe in nothing/ and you’re convinced of the hex'”, setting up another strong through-line for the album: there’s no reason we’re here except the reasons we make (“no one is ever really powerless,” Coyne sings on – naturally – “Powerless”), and the good or ill we do in the world is a matter of choice (the beautiful and sparse “If” turns on this point, that humans are evil but can be gentle “if they decide”). That might sound kinda depressing, but the Lips don’t squander their opportunity to point out how freeing it is to live in a universe governed by chaos, chemistry, and luck. “Powerless” could be said to be half of the centerpiece of the album, the other half being the splendiferous “The Ego’s Last Stand,” which explicitly addresses the shattering effect that honest perspective can have on your assumptions, set to the tune of a sinister bass lick and a sparse vocal that builds to an awesome, drum-propelled (props to the Lips for drafting drummer Kliph Scurlock as an official fourth Flaming Lip) noise orgy which must be the sound your ego makes when it’s being crushed under the weight of unfiltered awesomeness.
Does that sound new-agey and weird? Does it sound like spaced-out hippie bullshit? Or the bummingest bummer of all time? However my description of Embryonic strikes you, it says more about you and I than it ever could about the album (and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should admit that criticism always tells you more about the critic than what they’re critiquing). The truth is, I’ve spent the last week trying to figure out what to say about the new Flaming Lips album and, in the mean time, I’ve listened to it obsessively. I still can’t say anything that will make you like this album, but I’ll make a bet with you (and the goodish people at Pitchfork): I’m betting that, as weird as it may seem on the surface, if everyone who reads Bollocks! (that’s between 15 and 30 people, on average – this has increased from an average of 6 to 9 readers about a year ago and I thank all of you, whoever you are, for that) listens to Embryonic all the way through at least one time, more people will like than not. And, if you’re like me (you poor bastard), you’ll find yourself wanting to listen to it with an almost alarming frequency.