The Flaming Lips mine the depths of humanity on 'The Terror'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Weird is the traditional context by which to listen to the Flaming Lips. They have created beautiful pop song cycles and bizarre reports on life and death and art, blazing singles and sprawling albums that stretch well beyond the confines of two LPs. Within all that are songs about food and songs about animals and songs about love and songs about people. They’ll work with anyone on anything, and there’s little they haven’t tried.
But never have they jumped into the pits of desolation like they have on their latest record, The Terror. Eschewing a sort of cartoonish, apocalyptic reading on humanity, through the course of nine long songs, the Flaming Lips tell a story of fear based solely on isolation, and it all comes together serenely.
And it confuses me. It confuses me the way Radiohead’s best work confuses me, in a fantastic, sweeping collage of noises and textures and obscured lyrics that fuse into deep, tyrannical soundscapes.
The sheer density of the album makes everything a wash at first. The entire production, on the exterior, seems like percussive electronics and keyboards and guitar freakouts, when really all that sound is masking the depressing message contained within. Deeper than that, the superficial noise is working in collusion with the message, and the result is a dirge that is truly beautiful in it's bleakness.
Beyond looking at the deliberate song cycle the band has constructed, I don’t know how beneficial a hardcore analysis of this album could be. There has been hype and chatter, and there was the natural inclination to really get down to the heart of this album and see what was driving the band and the music. But the fear and horror is not on a surface Sabbath level. It’s much deeper than that. It’s a slow process of burrowing into the brain, songs and sounds that slowly unsettle rather than shocking the listener back under the covers.
Opening with the “Look… The Sun Is Rising” is either cynical or a darkly hopeful move destined to end in despair. In this world the Flaming Lips have constructed, life continues on day after day despite the repressive nature of this dreadfulness that surrounds them. The song dirges and swirls on around lead singer Wayne Coyne, who, as the song goes on, seems more and more resigned to the fate of continuing to live in this hopelessness.
Within the title track’s refrain of “At last we’ll sing the terror, it helps us hold the controls,” there’s a glimmer of hope in the narrator’s soul. But by this point, there’s more than enough doubt to shroud the hope, the way a lone survivor clings to the thought of rescue by instinct rather than the true belief in being saved.
The music in that song carries the same dichotomy. Compared to the rest of the record, it’s upbeat, with a near dance rhythm undercutting the lyrics. But the words themselves are shaded and strained, distorted in a way to make them seem just south of human, before the ruckus builds into discord and fades away, slow pulses playing the listener out.
It carries on. In “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” hoping for death is compared to the illusion of the sunset, always seeming near yet never coming to comfort to comfort the downtrodden. Death would be an escape, but it’s never as near as it feels. In the eyes and words and music of the Flaming Lips, that’s not realistic, and that’s not how it happens.
The proper album closes with “Always There, In Our Hearts” and the sullen realization that “there’s something pure we can’t control.” It’s a realization that burns through whatever remaining hope there may be, and the good seems destined to be crushed again when the sun rises again tomorrow. And then again the next day, and then again, and again, without a clear end.
And of course, that is true terror. It’s not in the stunning events and its immediate aftermath; it’s the gradual decay of the soul and sense of security. In their own subversive way, the Flaming Lips have captured that on record.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org