The Flaming Lips have always been interested in the big questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? What are we doing here? Unfortunately, they don’t answer them on At War With the Mystics. Instead they address a more trivial but pressing truth: what happens when you’ve got nothing interesting to say and no interesting way of saying it.
This is the sound of a band run dry. In 1999, the critical breakthrough of the whimsical, monolithic The Soft Bulletin primed the long-running acid-popsters for the chart success three years later of the less whimsical, less monolithic, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. In between they’d developed a strategy for moving their brand of bubblegum surrealism out of the underground—essentially, trading ugly for pretty. Where once they were wild, now they were tame. As the new album proves all too well, a band whose trademark was investing tired classic-rock tropes with a fresh sense of noisy adolescent charm have reduced themselves to purveyors of psychedelic pabulum, serving up the stereophonic panning and heavy reverb with none of the alternate chemical reality that’s supposed to make them mean something.
Don’t let the bunny suits and bogus cranial trauma fool you. The Flaming Lips have gone sane. Neocon call-outs (the mystics of the album’s title) and lazy lyrical jibes at passé targets like Gwen and Britney epitomize the album’s tired ideological currency. But the main problem isn’t lyrical inanity—it’s how steadfastly the music hems to pro forma notions of the awesome and the sublime. “It Overtakes Me/Stars Are So Big . . . I Am So Small . . . Do I Stand a Chance?” is awash in choral gimmicks straight out of the ELO illusions-of-profundity trick bag. “Vein of Stars” is only the most blatant of four or five songs employing the same wah-wah’d slide guitars and analog synth washes that rockers have deployed for over 40 years to signify the vastness of space, man. “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion’s” columns of wobbly guitar and glittery keyboard grandeur are speckled with birdsong, because, you see, it’s about a bird whose song “you can hear if you try.”
Even the titles suffer from an inflated sense of importance. The band of “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” and Hear It Is is now the band of “Pompeii Am Götterdammerung” and Mystics‘s own titular grandiosity. (Waging war with flaccid psych-pop?) The po’-faced questioning of “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” (“If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich, would you do it?”) and the Moby-glomming Buddha physics of “Vein of Stars” (“who knows, maybe there isn’t a vein of stars calling out my name”) never suggest that a lopsided grin might be lurking beneath the band’s skyward gaze.
Back when the Lips were just a scraggly gang of young Okies with heads full of acid and a fondness for fuzz, they weren’t so concerned with effing the ineffable. Mid-’80s tracks like “Chrome Plated Suicide” and “Unconsciously Screamin'” showed a willingness—maybe naive probably right—to play around with noise and chance. The adventurous enthusiasm with which the band once merged gonzoid distortion and hard rock riffing gave their music a wide-open quality that’s been slammed shut by a boilerplate aesthetic. The Lips have abandoned their sense of joyous possibility for the kind of broadly appealing, vestigially lysergic music that My Morning Jacket now delivers with twice the verve and half the fuss. As so often happens, professionalism has been mistaken for progress; a band that needs some dirt beneath its fingernails has been given a high-gloss manicure. The simple fact is that had the Lips turned up the amps and turned down the deep thinking, the result would likely have been a more cogent and fully realized statement than anything on Mystics, a workmanlike collection of planetarium psychedelia where nothing has been left to chance lest it mess up the laser show.