The Flaming Lips and the Nature of Chaos in Music

Already, the latest release from The Flaming Lips has been called a whole range of impressive things; innovative, creative, bizarre. Chaotic.

It isn’t really any of those.

If I may offer a few prologues to the point I’m making; firstly, this is in no way an article whose purpose is to tear down, insult or demean the Flaming Lips. It certainly isn’t intended to cause offence to anyone. This is not even a review of the album, so much as a voicing of a grievance I have. My main concern on what constitutes avant-garde in music, and that, while Heady Fwends is a strange album that I really do think is worth studying, it isn’t breaking any rules, and it isn’t all too daring.

Now, secondly, I feel it is far from my place to critique the Zeitgeist – for starters, I’m not really sure I’m all that good at it. I would much rather study the Zeitgeist – it’s way more interesting to trace modern trends in popular culture back to their genesis rather than simply begin a tirade against them. I’m fascinated by the constantly changing views on what constitutes a feminist icon in pop music – I love how auteur theory is something that’s inescapable in music now, even down to production details – I adore the conflicting idea that music is adopting a “new aesthetic” approach in that it embraces new technology whilst at the same time itself there is a contradictory ever-growing trend of sampling in music. Forgive me for the flag-waving for a moment, but I just love hearing ideas and talking about music. It’s so much less productive to seemly act refutative towards something. I just feel the need to outline that, no, I don’t get my kicks from writing something like this. It’s just I have an itch that’s grown into an albatross.

That being said, Heady Fwends is an uninventive and non-innovative album. It is certainly not chaotic, free-form or avant-garde.

And those things – all of them – are totally fine! You can absolutely enjoy the album in spite of all those things.

But, again, just because one enjoys the album, doesn’t make it those things. All my issues with the album aside, I’m absolutely not here to kick Heady Fwends around, or make accusations about its fans. Please know, that’s something I would hate it to be thought that’s what I’m doing. I have to say though, that the sound that has been employed on Heady Fwends is messy, intrusive, loud and abrasive, but it is never nebulous. The album is not a wild storm of genuine havoc, and this ultimately comes down to the albums craftsmanship.

I told Justin Wesley of the site that one of the greatest sins in music, I find, is wasting chaos. It’s a sound that is so hard to achieve when one is outright trying to achieve it – it’s something which seems formless and unnatural and a little scary, but at the same time, can only ever be attained naturally. It’s a sound where the more you force it, the more outlined the strings become and the less chaotic your sound becomes. On top of just how hard it is to find natural chaos in music, it’s also such a valuable thing to have. Chaos is something that, in music, can mean so many things. It’s the end of the line; portraying a sense of desperation and confusion in its most primitive and believable state. It’s an audible example of excitement and rapture and joy all failing to be contained. It’s a chromatic seal of genuity and honestly that acts as proof that yes, wiring the song kicked my ass. It’s hideous. It’s beautiful, and on top of all these things, there are things that only it can accomplish, too. It’s a demonstration of sheer musicianship, flexing the muscles and trumpeting the prowess of all those involved. It’s an experiment for the members of the band to work against each other whilst also being totally in synch. It’s the emotional apex when the very structure of the music you’re employing to deliver your message, ends up holding your message back.

A simple yet perfect example of chaos utilised in a way in which only it can serve; the frantic, excruciating burst of noise that occurs around nine minutes into “Cop Shoot Cop” by Spiritualized. It works because the eight and a half minutes that lead into it are cool, subdued and slow. In those eight minutes, the narrator sings about his friends dying for nothing, and tries to convince himself that he “will be reborn”. The moment nine miutes in marks the breaking point for the narrator; we can practically hear his psyche snapping through the noise. It’s a mental breakdown in musical form.  It’s a perfect instance of the music itself being used for characterization rather than the words attached to it. We don’t need words to tell us what the narrator is going though. The chaos represents everything so much better than words could.

Heady Fwends thinks that about five seconds of that is enough per song.

Doesn’t that sound like the kind of lazy songwriting that goes against everything I just said? This sound is, by definition, amorphous. It’s Dada, in a sense. You can’t take the progression, unpredictability or changing nature out of chaos, then it just becomes… Well, it becomes n ugly sample. By structuring each song so tightly – by working with admittedly chaotic samples and repeating them ad nauseam, the song ceases to be chaotic, and just becomes, er, loop-rock. A particularly messy sounding variation, I’ll give you, but loop-rock all the same. You can argue that by giving “chaos” this sort of definition (i.e., that it cannot simply be repeated/looped/remain the same to remain “chaotic”) I am attempting to define chaos, which goes against what chaos stands for. That I’m ontologically trying to define something into existence on my terms. And that’s a terrific point! But it’s no more constricting to the sound than what has actually happened on the album. My loose understanding of the avant-garde for argument’s sake is far, far less constricting than what has actually happened on Heady Fwends. There’s this heavy irony to this problem, where I think that, in the band’s attempts to make the album sound as insane as possible, they may have set out to choose the “most crazy” parts of each song and bring those elements to the foreground of each track. What they ended up with was an album with no movement.

This leads me to what I think one of the most painful and defining flaws of Heady Fwends is what so many people (and I must insist – I give the benefit of the doubt here) misconstrued as patchwork charm, or avant-garde work ethic; the album has an obvious, searing, agonising lack of vision. Kesha messing up the opening line of the album makes it feel less like it’s embodying a free nature and more (again, exactly like the songwriting style itself) like the exact opposite. When I hear that line, I hear a forced ideology; a mission statement that was only discovered in post-production. From imperfect loops to missed cues to downright awful mixing, Heady Fwends seemed like the result of having too much creative freedom without having any creative influences, followed by a mad-dash to make up for it. It is a fun album, though. That I cannot deny. After the first listen I assumed the people involved on the album (the ones that were actually met in person, that is) had a great time working on the album. The problem is, though, that that assumption is necessary. Heady Fwends never infects you with its fun, because (again!) it’s just so damned controlled.

And, may I just say once again before I am accused of simply writing a Lips-bashing article – there are moments of brilliance on the album. Amidst the hall of mirrors, the album will at times break out into genuine insanity (and I hate to say it, but these kind of feel more honest because they also kind of feel accidental). There are also moments, such as on the closing minute or so of the Edward Sharpe track, that are just pleasant listening. It’s just a shame that these instances come buried between minutes of music that for all their noisiness, wrong-keyed singing and kooky lyrics, are just flat-out dull. The tones drone. The guitar aches. It seconds drag into minutes, and the minutes drag into just fractions of unchanging songs.

And I think that’s why I object to this album being called “innovative” or “chaotic”. For all my praise, sometimes chaos doesn’t always work. Sometimes it is just ugly in a bad way. Sometimes if it’s badly utilised it lacks a kind of catharsis that makes it feel earned. Sometime it’s just not what the moment calls for. But for everything that could go wrong, and for all the potential chaos has to be bad,

it’s never boring.

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