'Embryonic' isn't just daring and inventive, it's stunning
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I’ve been slightly down on the output of some of my long-treasured established acts this year. Not all of them, but a few have given some half-hearted efforts lately, and because of that, I was a little nervous to find that another artist I’ve long admired was about to release a new album, and a double no less.
More than 25 years into the Flaming Lips' bizarre journey through the music industry, we, their huddled listening masses, have been inexplicably handed their strangest, bravest album yet. They’ve made a career of reinventing themselves and shattering expectations, but following three consecutive slam-dunk albums, it’s starting to seem like they’re showing off. This is more than okay.
I can’t state this strongly enough — how this band just managed to throw themselves in a completely new direction, at this stage in their career, and still top themselves is just incredible. If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I am. And I will continue to do so.
After the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones in the mid 1990s, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivens refocused their energies from zaniness to creating beautiful, lush songs, creating a modern, freaked-out version of the Beach Boys in the process. Their live shows are rightfully legendary, with confetti, streamers, dancing aliens and fantastic bubbles for the frontman to explore his audience, but sometimes, the spectacle of the Lips can overshadow the music in retrospect. Their shows are fantastic, but they only work because their music is so profound. And now, the 18 tunes provided here on Embryonic will take all this to a new level. Given all that, this is nothing short of shocking.
“Convinced of the Hex,” an opener that is somehow both thrashing and muted, foreshadows the first big surprise of Embryonic: there will be no “Do You Realize??” or “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” this time. The nearest thing to a traditional “pop” song on this album might be “Evil,” slotted in the third space on disc one, though that truly says how out-there this record is. It burns slowly, the vocals are sung with a muted echo, there are snippets of conversations dropped in here and there, and the backing music is minimalist in that strange Jim O’Rourke style. Suffice it to say, then, this is not a pop song, but it’s probably as close as the listener will get here.
Instead, what’s left is a beautifully strange listen, one that immediately becomes a headphone classic. Just listening to the bass bounce between channels on “The Ego’s Last Stand” confirms it. This is the rare album that can be instantly rewarding, yet will reveal new textures and sounds upon every listen. I could have this album playing 24/7 and never grow tired of it. In fact, I could listen to “Powerless,” the closing track on disc one, on repeat for the next week and keep plucking out new crooked notes Drozd finds on his guitar. This is as close to jazz as whatever genre this is (acid alternative prankster punk?) will ever get. Miles and his Cellar Door band would be so proud.
Now, double albums are always dicey propositions when it comes to fickle fans. Nearly without fail, there will always be a loud and vocal group of fans that insist something like, “this really would’ve been better if they’d just kept it to one disc.” It’s one of those smarmy, self-righteous statements that can be found on the message board of any band who’s ever put out a double set.
To those who will inevitably utter that trite proclamation about Embryonic — please, stop. Either you don’t know what you’re talking about, or you just didn’t understand this album right away and want to feel smarter than the band. It’s rather unbecoming, really.
Part of what makes this album work is its size. The songs, themselves very experimental and daring, are couched between equally-experimental soundscapes. It’s a total experience. To try to pare this down to “make it better” would only neuter it. This is not a party album. This is not an album for the gym. It is a true statement, a musical dare, and it came from a band who could have taken the easy way out and kept a good portion of its fan base satisfied.
To see the Flaming Lips, more than a quarter-century on, still trying to grow and explore, and to discover them still turning out such amazing music is truly a wonder. Go out, buy it, put it on, and just let it wash over you. It will spur discussion. Each listen will be a new experience. You’ll wonder how any of this was possible.
The fact that an older band did this adds to the amazement level, but what shines brightest is the music. Bold, brash and unmerciful, it demands full attention and rewards the faithful. If nothing else, plunking down the money for this record will add two discs to your collection guaranteed to satisfy as much —or more — in 10 years as is will now.
This is beautiful, daring music, and it took guts to release it as-is. The best way to reward that effort is to put as much of yourself into listening to this as the Lips did in creating it. And it will always pay you back.