The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends

The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips invite fwends along to channel chaos


[One Perspective]

The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends is the sound of a beloved band not giving a shit, throwing harmony and traditional song construction into the wind and appearing to see just how many childlike indulgences they can get away with unscathed and admired. The majority of the reviews scattered around the internet find the reviewer acknowledging anticipatory fears of the album being lopsided and lacking cohesion due to the nature of the recording and the who’s who scroll of high-profile musicians involved. Most every reviewer changed his tune after a full listen and declared The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends as one of the most exceptional works of the band’s career. Wayne Coyne recently told NME the album “could be the best the band ever makes.” I vehemently disagree.

The band elects to kick off The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends peculiarly: with pop tabloid case Ke$ha front-and-center shouting, “Cause I want my ass…Shit. One more time.” Cut. Cue the propulsive beat that rips The Stooges’ “1969” and switches out roaring guitars for an unworldly electro-beat and freak fuzz. The Lips hand the brash vocal attitude over to Ke$ha, utilize an extra-terrestrial vocal effect for accompaniment, jackhammer in buzzsaw beats and invite Biz Markie along for what seems to be the sole purpose of shouting a bizarre, drunken slur of “please gather round.”

On first listen, “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” could very well make or break your fulfillment from The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends. Where most other early listeners were apprehensive about what the album may hold, I was rather excited by the possibility of hearing anything The Flaming Lips did with the likes of Bon Iver, Jim James, Neon Indian, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros and, especially, Nick Cave (!!!) in tow.  As mentioned, most reviewers seemed to tiptoe into the album with the assumption that the Ke$ha track would be the worst song on an album that could potentially be a total mess. Since hearing the album in full, the consensus is the album excels on most fronts and Ke$ha’s collaboration is one of the strongest cuts.

My reaction is nearly the direct inverse to every review that has poured forth in favor of The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends.  I can summarize it best by saying it’s right in line with what everybody else feared. To be clear though, everybody else’s assumptions and reviews were wrong in the same respect: “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” is not even close to the least effective song on an adventurous, occasionally stunning, hugely frustrating, hour-long collection of unharmonious chaos that frequently toes the line of being wholly unlistenable.

The Flaming Lips do absolutely EVERYTHING in their power to have you not take The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends seriously (they succeed without even requiring a listen on title alone). Throughout the album (or collection of one-off collaborations they have attempted to unite as a cohesive, thematic whole), the band takes its signature sounds and imagery and bastardizes them, often to comedic effect (I’m guessing mostly intentionally, sometimes not).

I’ve long promised myself that I wouldn’t stoop to trashing bands or their music in any sort of calculated, heartless manner. It’s not my intention here, especially relative to an often great band taking risks, not aiming for commercial appeal in the least and doing it all on their own terms. The crux of the problem lies in aforementioned desire of The Flaming Lips to see how much they can deconstruct, mongrelize and still come out on top without anyone batting an eye.

I’m not making a grand exaggeration by saying I find it frequently unlistenable, and I’m not taking out calculated hits on a band I despise. I’m a Flaming Lips fan and am often awestruck by their creations and inventive risks. The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, in particular, have both been mainstays of my music collection for more than a decade. My reason for saying this collection of songs is borderline unlistenable on frequent occasions comes down to this: it is the rare song on The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends that I’m not begging like a detoxing addict to skip ahead to the next song or dig up an album from a totally different band to play just to preserve my sanity.

I’ve given the album nearly a dozen full listens. I was truly eager to throw it on the second I got it, and I have been nothing more than thoroughly disappointed since playing the opening seconds on that first listen. There are albums that you don’t take to immediately that you know you’ll fall more in love with the more you listen to them. Some people call those albums growers; I have cast off any misconceived hopes of The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends being such an album for me. The songs that make the album worthwhile are the exquisite collaboration with Lightning Bolt, “I’m Working at NASA on Acid,” (the best song on the album by a landslide), the beautiful but imperfect ballad with Tame Impala, “Children of the Moon,” the Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros collaboration, “Helping the Retarded to Know God” (the callously named but well-intentioned folkie ballad), and the second half of the Neon Indian-infused “Is David Bowie Dying?” With that in mind, of the only four songs I don’t find myself clamoring to lift the needle or press skip, I would only classify a single one –“I’m Working at NASA on Acid”- to be superior front-to-back. I’ve come to this conclusion after not one (or even two) but twelve or so full listens. I’ve stuck with it in order to give the album a fair shake, transcribe my most lingering sentiments, struggle through the considerations of what could have been versus what is, and compose an explanation why I don’t have one iota of an intention to voluntarily listen to the album again.

The biggest travesty here is how many musicians I adore came along for the mess. It’s no fault of The Flaming Lips, because they’re doing what they love, but they disassemble all restrictions, any gauges of restraint and most considerations of the average listener’s patience. There are at least a few flashes of brilliance on most songs, but the lack of restraint tips them on the scales with excessive bloat, supernumerary production flourishes or grating samples, electronic effects, sophomoric lyricism worthy of early adolescents, and some unnerving songs that simply have zero lyrics worth a salt or any sounds resembling a hook.  Bon Iver jumps at the chance to join the party on “Ashes in the Air,” and all Justin Vernon can summon is an atrocious, Auto-tuned falsetto in support of Coyne with the opening lines “You and me / We’re both so fucked up / But you’re fucked up in the good way / and I’m fucked up in the bad” and the desperate circumstance inherent in failing to outrun “robot dogs.”

Prefuse 73 help out with the furiously driving jungle-beat of “Superman Made Me Want to Pee,” but it’s a climax ad nauseum without a second of foreplay. Poor Jim James appears on one of the best- sounding rock orchestrations at the outset, but I’m ready to skip it on every listen after the opening line of “You always want to shave my balls, but that ain’t my trip.” From there, the Lips go to the well time and again with the “but, that ain’t my trip” structure for the duration of the song and punish you with an effect sounding like a dentist’s drill (and for a solo, nonetheless) and push it up to top of the unbearable mix. Deeper disappointment sets in on “You Man? Human???” with Nick Cave thankfully writing and sounding very much like the Nick Cave we know and love, but it’s a mighty struggle to make it through the entire song time and again with the ridiculous, hookless chorus of “Win. Weeeeeinn!”  The song should be a grand slam on paper, but it’s a prime candidate for the definition of cacophonic mess.

If further ammunition is necessary for why the album often veers towards unlistenable catastrophe, I enter Exhibit A into evidence: “Do It!” The song(72-point bold quotes would be ideal, but formatting won’t allow it ) showcases Yoko Ono and Plastic Ono Band with Yoko shouting a string of “Do It!” more than 80 times and regurgitating orgasmic howls and shivers amidst a disjointed wall of random instruments and tempo shifts for three-and-a-half minutes. Wayne Coyne has explained the recording process of The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends as being done mostly over email and Twitter with collaborators sending him their parts. If you had any doubts of the veracity of that statement, “Do It!” will lay it out to you in seconds. Until this point in the album, every song has flashes of superior creativity and brilliance but a dominating lack of restraint and frequent inanity. “Do It!” throws creativity out the window and rallies behind total inanity with zero restraint. All I can think of when listening to “Do It!” (provided I haven’t skipped it within seconds) is how badly screwed out of their money more than a handful of people who threw down the starting price of $40-plus to procure the limited edition double-vinyl on Record Store Day must feel (I have less empathy for the die-hards who dropped thousands of dollars on the extremely rare “Blood Vinyl”).

If you hear or read enough reactions to the project, it’s undeniable that I’m the out-of-touch dissenter, the outlier. That approving majority has stated the 10-minute opus with Erykah Badu, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” is the album’s lynchpin masterpiece. While the crawling tempo and the celestial aura, courtesy of the Lips’ composition, do set the stage for something truly magical, the ridiculous amount of production gloss and effects added to Badu’s vocals suck out every ounce of lifeblood the song had going at the outset. The gluttonous run-time makes the song more than double its suitable length and turns it into a belabored dirge more than anything else. It’s a shame that’s the end result, because (like the majority of the album) it could have been something truly special and far more powerful if done with a hint of self-control.

The song “Girl, You’re So Weird” with New Fumes (Daniel Huffman, touring guitarist of The Polyphonic Spree) adds little of interest late in the album and thankfully limits the running time to slightly over three minutes. The album closer, “Tasered and Maced” with Ghostland Observatory’s Aaron Behrens, comes across of a total filler track of playground sampling behind a spoken-word delivery of a young man’s account of a run-in with the cops in an unruly crowd. Are there really that many people clamoring to hear an anecdote explaining the difference in pain a friend feels when you “hit him in the balls” versus the effect the action has on a cop?

The choice to swap a Chris Martin collaboration that was widely considered a highlight on the initial Record Store Day release in favor of “Tasered and Maced” is just another in an endless string of baffling questions about the band’s decision-making and aspirations in the creation and intended goals of The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends. Only time will tell the true impact of the album and what kind of shelf life it will have. Early indications seem to point in favor of huge appeal from the majority of critics and the band’s reverent fan base. From a casual fan’s perspective in search of engaging music with the power to leave the listener feeling something, anything (other than agitated), an album filled with tossed off lyrics, discordant stylistic choices and performed with an untethered sense of fantastical adventure just doesn’t add up to a compelling statement.

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