One of my favorite concert experiences ever was seeing The Flaming Lips in 2000 at the end of the Soft Bulletin tour. I considered myself only a casual fan of the band, but I loved The Soft Bulletin, a painfully pretty pop-orchestral mediation on mortality that undercut any potential over-seriousness with the band’s usual acid-freak whimsy. That mix of profundity and silliness carried over perfectly to the show, with Wayne Coyne dousing himself in fake blood like a hippie messiah while guys in bunny outfits mingled with the audience. As with everything The Flaming Lips do, the show balanced precariously on the line between uniquely memorable experience and embarrassing self-parody. This time, they stayed on the right side of that divide, and delivered one of the most moving rock performances I’ve ever seen.
I caught the Lips in concert again in 2010 and 2011, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. It’s possible we both changed in the time between shows. The band’s 2009 album, Embryonic, was hailed as a return to form by many critics and fans, but to my ears, it seemed like more of a collection of interesting (but ultimately shapeless and sort of boring) soundscapes than actual songs. But mostly, the spectacle left me cold.
That spectacle has become the major selling point for Flaming Lips concerts. Come see Wayne walk in the plastic bubble! Stay for the exploding confetti and projections of naked girls! Be dazzled by all the spinning shapes and vibrant colors! I don’t hate fun; I can appreciate seeing stuff blowed up real good as much as the next person. But the memory of that first Flaming Lips show haunts me. Twelve years ago, the band had half as much notoriety and an even smaller fraction of the production budget. All it had in greater abundance back then, it seems, are great songs and heart. Unfortunately for the Lips, if you add up all the gimmicks, schemes, and stunts the band has pulled recently, they don’t come close to compensating for what’s been lost since then.
As much as I respect Flaming Lips for its longevity and Coyne for his seemingly limitless energy and restless creative spirit, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to care at all about what this band does lately. I’ve been worn out by the series of batty projects the Lips have launched in the past year and a half. There was the pointless song-for-song cover of Dark Side Of The Moon. There was the multi-part single designed specifically for smartphones. There was a six-hour song, and then a 24-hour song. They have sold music encased in human skulls. They have also sold music encased in skulls made of marijuana-flavored gummi candy. They recorded a song with Ke$ha, which will be released later this month as part of the Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends collaborative album that originally was sold at select outlets for Record Store Day in April. And they will promote the record by attempting to break the world record for most live concerts in one day.
It would be one thing if it seemed like The Flaming Lips were diving into these zany rabbit holes for the greater creative good. The band’s one-of-a-kind 1997 album Zaireeka is the best example of Coyne walking out on a long, seemingly insane limb and having it pay off in a big way artistically. A four-CD record designed to be played on four stereos simultaneously, Zaireeka was intended to offer a singular social and sonic experience, with listeners encouraged to hold listening parties (and invite other listeners to bring over their boom boxes) and surround themselves with the intoxicating swirls of sound coming out of four sets of speakers.
I was chatting with a friend recently about Zaireeka, and he recalled throwing his own listening party in the late ’90s. It was so much fun that he threw two more, but was unable to recapture the magic of his first experience. Is that the curse of The Flaming Lips? Does this band just get progressively less charming as the novelty wears off? Perhaps that was true for the “party” aspect of Zaireeka, but the actual music more than stands for itself. As crazy as Zaireeka seemed when it came out, the experiments in layered sound and the “composed” nature of the music can be seen in retrospect as pointing toward the achievements made on its masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin. In this case, the method justified the madness.
Maybe I’m wrong, and all of the shenanigans Coyne has been busy with lately will finally add up to something masterful. That seems to be the intent, anyway: In a 2011 interview with Billboard, Coyne enthused about his band’s “freedom to fuck around” after its contract with Warner Bros. expired in 2010. Now he’s trying to brainstorm new ways to make and distribute music. “I’d just like to release music all the time and just put it out in all kinds of weird formats and not just collect it until we’re ready to put out [an album] every two years or so,” he said. “It’s just by luck that we run into people that are willing to help us and… want to do something radical with us.”
But where Coyne sees adventurous exploration and innovation, I see a band that seems lost and even a little desperate. Last week’s controversy over The Flaming Lips’ scuttled music video for the Heady Fwends cover of Robert Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” featuring Erykah Badu was either caused by Coyne’s lack of professionalism, or the result of a rather cynical publicity stunt. Judging from Coyne’s Twitter page—where he attacked Badu for attacking him over posting the salacious clip online without her consent, and retweeted fans complimenting him on his canny manipulation of the media—there’s reason to believe both theories.
Once again, when confronted with Flaming Lips news, I ask a familiar question: Why? Coyne is great at making people notice him—no small feat for an aging rock band that formed nearly 30 years ago—but that’s not the same thing as doing vital or interesting work. While I’m willing to concede that Embryonic just didn’t connect with me, I have a hard time seeing the musical value in what the Lips have produced lately. Perhaps that 24-hour song starts to pick up around the 17- or 18-hour mark, but I gave up on the interminable composition long before that. I’ve defended Ke$ha on this very site, but I found her collaboration with the Lips not only dull, but also something of a missed opportunity. Ke$ha’s voice is distinctive, but it’s buried in layers of boilerplate fizz-and-clank on the Heady Fwends track “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded).” What’s the point of recruiting Ke$ha if you don’t want her to sound like Ke$ha, unless the song is really about the supposedly craaazy concept of The Flaming Lips and Ke$ha appearing together? The Badu collaboration is another dead end, dragging along fruitlessly for more than 10 minutes without a payoff, and wasting Badu’s vocal prowess in the process.
The Flaming Lips have made enough great music to earn some slack. Part of me hopes there’s a great record at the end of all this so-called “fucking around” that will bring me back to the fold. But I wonder if I’ve just fallen out of love with this band. Somewhere along the line, an aggressive pursuit of look-at-me, strangeness-for-strangeness’-sake hucksterism became Coyne’s franchise. That’s always been an element of that to The Flaming Lips, but there was also something deep, true, and emotional there. If those things are still there in the Lips’ latest music, I’ve lost the capacity to hear them.