(un)Constrained Terror

The Flaming Lips are no strangers to sudden stylistic shifts, and their latest offering moves even further away from their Soft Bulletin days in favour of a very different internal monologue (“You are not alone / You are alone”) that ponders rather than soars.

The tone is set right from the start, as the brush-stroke drumming and ominous bass-line of “Look … the Sun is Rising” invite us into the Lips’ darker, more experimental project. Looping, melodically jarring synths and austere, haunting vocals (“Love is always something / something you should fear”) effortlessly drag you into a world reeling from relapse and separation. It’s a world of restrained emotion punctuated by raw, scratchy guitar riffs that make it seem as if the world has lost its mind.

It’s clear that the album is a cathartic experience for the band. The composure of “Try to Explain” shows that they’re not waiting for superheroes to save the world, or worrying about evil pink robots; instead it’s a testament to a new-found maturity. Coyne’s voice has a reverence that makes it sound like a church hymn, a feeling reinforced by the sounds of low-pitched bells. The melody is perfectly shaped, reaching a natural crescendo of noise before fading calmly back again. Even the more personal moments (“You got a lot of nerves / a lot of nerves to fuck with me”) are tempered by this mellow introspection.

But sometimes the turmoil breaks through. The loopy echoes and distant, incomprehensible vocals in “The Terror” mask a rumbling discontent that suddenly blasts into the open, a tonally jarring fog-horn that sounds like a cargo ship gone off-course.

The Terror is built on these random interactions between ambient psychedelic sounds and its harsher experimental interludes. The album ebbs and flows, an endless tug-of-war that grows incrementally towards a harsher, darker direction before fading back again.

What’s novel is that they’ve taken the clashing chords and syncopations from their experimental days and bottled them up into songs that are well-structured, but are still somehow chaotic. “Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die)” is a case in point. Kaleidoscopic, yes, with airy Tame Impala-esque vocals (“You can see the universe beginning / Making all the sun and the sky”) that barely rise above dense layers of guitar feedback. But at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of restlessness driven by constantly-shifting drum patterns that makes it seem agitated and on-edge.

All this culminates in “You Lust,” the centrepiece and a kind of mini-map for the album. It grows from an austere organ riff to a multi-layered soundscape of sitars and etheric cooing, before suddenly cutting off into a bizarre tribal chorus chant (“Lust to succeed / Lust to succeed”), before reverting back again. Here, it’s just not sustainable. Songs like “Be Free, A Way” work because they’re self-contained. But at thirteen minutes, “You Lust” is repetitive. Though they’ve tried to make it sound exotic and dense, there’s not enough variation, and certainly nothing distinct enough, to warrant the hefty time investment.

You could say the same thing about several other songs as well, which seem like rehashes of a generic psychedelic template. “You are Alone” is actually too short to allow anything substantial to develop; instead, its siren-like wave synth reverberates into an uncomfortable emptiness devoid of added layers or tonal shifts. Likewise, “Turning Violent” suffers from being overly sensitive and quiet. Coyne’s voice here is as indistinct as the song itself, with its thinly-written bass lines and lack of variation. Especially after the relentless pace of its predecessor, “Butterfly (How Long It Takes to Die),” it comes across as frustratingly slow and unnecessary.

Nonetheless, these are small bones in an otherwise large well-roasted Christmas turkey. You have to respect how it’s written and conceived. It’s ironic that its most personal quality comes from its restraint– something you wouldn’t expect from a group whose music is perforated with motifs of space travel and hyper-optimistic absurdities. In making such a move, there was always the risk of overdoing it and creating something disingenuous. But it’s exactly the opposite, so that when you finally get to the rumbling finish (“Always There…In Our Hearts”) which revives the promise of the ambient sunrise that was supposed to be rising, you can’t help but feel that it’s more of a sunset.