The Impact of Sunrise on Death
It’s April 2002.
Jennifer Lopez/ Ja Rule’s “Ain’t It Funny” is finishing six weeks as the hottest hit in the land – annoying supermarket shoppers and whatnot – and The Flaming Lips are coming off nearly three years of quaintly flamboyant shows and critical acclaim for their last album, The Soft Bulletin. An update on their studio’s website reads, “Dave Fridmann in mastering the new Flaming Lips record tentatively titled Yoshimi vs. The Pink Robots.” Not much is expected of the release (it’s not like they’re J-Lo or Radiohead or anything), though it’s anticipated by some long-time fans and a growing body of NME/CMJ/ Spin-reader-types who latched onto the band after those publications raved over Bulletin. This month’s Spin cover story is “The Only Bands That Matter” (i.e. System of a Down, Moby, Eminem, U2, The Strokes, and, of course, Radiohead – now there’s a band with expectations). The Lips aren’t on the list, though they’re included in the “where are they now” side column alongside Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo and Fiona Apple. It’s a step up from a few years earlier when the press consistently lumped The Lips together with one-hit wonders from MTV Buzz Bin’s alt-rock hey day (The Rentals, Spacehog), or, more likely, didn’t mention them at all. This upward momentum propelled forward with July’s release of Yoshimi, the first album in their then two decade career to debut in the top 50 of the Billboard 200. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back in April expectations – commercial or other otherwise – are slim, as Lips frontman Wayne Coyne himself acknowledges in rollingstone.com’s preview: “I totally look at what we’re doing as a small, small slice of someone’s day.”
Yoshimi’s title was the first sign the band was finally ready to unabashedly celebrate their playful tendencies to their technicolor extremes. “A lot of times we get into these things that are philosophical and heavy,” Coyne explained to Rolling Stone, “there was a little bit of relief when we could just say, ‘Why does everything have to be death-oriented or existential?‘ Still, there was plenty of philosophizing and death on the new set – perhaps even more pronounced than before on cuts like lead single “Do You Realize?” – it’s just softened by chill electronica influences, anime-esque imagery and quasi-concept album storytelling (more traits nobody expected). Philosophizing and death also characterize The Impact of Death on the Sunrise, the album-explaining essay Coyne wrote in April (around the same as Rolling Stone’s preview and Spin’s side column). Coyne explains how the record began with sessions for “It’s Summertime” (“this sad song about the impact of death and the victory and celebration of sunshine”) and developed around the theme of “sunshine funerals.” It concludes with him evoking a ride on a hot air balloon into the sunset in his description of Yoshimi’s instrumental finale – “an ending of a fantastical adventure, an evening ride over the city – serene and exultant.”
Rolling Stone’s preview ends with a nod to Lips’ ’80s albums that are about to be re-issued. “I applaud the freaks that are on those records,” Coyne says of their former selves, as if from a third-person perspective. “They were just so far removed from where we are.” It’s clear – even in April, months before its release – Yoshimi will distance them further still from their guitar freak past.
Chaos, Control, Change
Now it’s June 2012.
The Flaming Lips have just broken a world record. Something about more gigs in 24 hours than Jay-Z or nonsense like that. A decade has passed since Yoshimi and so much has happened in the interim that that band of weirdos behind it – the one relatively free of expectations – is increasingly harder to recognize. They’ve been a prime attraction at virtually every major music festival in the world and opened for the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” (aka The Rolling Stones) at one of the largest outdoor ticketed events in North American history. They’ve played with one of their prime influences – the great Pete Townshend – and honored The Who on a highly syndicated VH1 Special. When David Bowie was nearing (the hiatus most assumed until recently was) his retirement he bemoaned contemporary music sucked, but listed the Lips as one exception. Pink Floyd and Jimmy Page have allegedly nodded approval as well. The Lips have a Broadway musical in the works and a street named after them. They’ve been nominated for five Grammys, winning three. The Oklahoman state Governor used an executive order to bestow upon them the official state rock song. And their music hasn’t stood still either.
“Fortunately, we get bored,” Steven Drozd explains to lawrence.com in June. “If people were expecting the same thing, it’d be terrible. Here it is, 10 years since Yoshimi and if people were expecting us to do that record again, we probably would have killed ourselves by now because we don’t want to do the same thing.”
All of the above happened within seven years of Yoshimi; little of it was expected in even the wildest of imaginations. Then Wayne got an iPhone– which he used to connect with everyone from Bon Iver (the artist most applauded by typecast music snobs circa 2011) to Kesha (the same typecast’s least praised); and manifest an image suggesting he was increasingly interested in sex and drugs more than rock and roll. At least that’s the way some people interpreted his twitter feed and ubiquitous web presence (he’s discussed so frequently that at the end of 2012 Spin posts a mocking year in review just on him). The most recent incident in June involves the making of a music video. And Erykah Badu. Long story short, it ends with a spectrum of words being thrown at the Lips – and Coyne specifically – ranging from attention-seeking hacks to racist misogynists.
Wayne also tweets about the music they are working on, like this update from a few months before:
“Try to explain why you changed,” that’s exactly what some fans – those that don’t understand The Lips’ recent follies – would like to ask Wayne. And though the accusations are frequently not fair or factual, it’s easy to wonder had Coyne in 2002 been able to look ahead a decade if he would’ve had the same reaction as when he looked back: “the freaks that are on those records…[are] so far removed from where we are.”
But never mind the haters, or those that have simply “fallen out of love with The Flaming Lips,” in June 2012 the Flaming Lips are burning full steam ahead. Even with their latest project, Heady Fwends, still days away from its wide-spread release (following a year in which they released more hours of music than their entire previous catalog combined), they’ve already announced a new album. And not just any LP.
“I would say I think it could be the best Flaming Lips record that could ever be made,” Wayne declares to Spinner. For Coyne it’s largely a matter of how they stumbled into making the LP with no agenda, or even awareness initially that they were making their next proper release. “I think it could be the greatest Flaming Lips record we’ve ever made because it’s made from some other part of ourselves that we wouldn’t have access to if we were trying to get in,” he explained to Paste in June. The same day Rolling Stone’s post added on Wayne’s explanation, “We did a session last week, and when we get a free couple weeks at the end of July we’ll finish it up. I honestly think it might be the best Flaming Lips record that we’ve ever made. It really took us by surprise… We were kind of making it like we were sleepwalking….Things happen when you’re making lots and lots of music and working with lots of freaky people. It sends you off in directions that you would not think of. That’s the magic of music.”
In the months that follow, Steven isn’t so bold – “I hate those guys who’ve been making records for over thirty years and peaked in the mid-1970s, and they put a new record out in the present day and say ‘I think this is the finest work I’ve ever done’,” he told Pitchfork – though ranks The Terror high regardless. “I don’t know if I’d call it the best Lips album,” he explained to Fuse, “but it is my favorite in a long time. I hate to soft pedal, like, you know, that old English rocker who peaked 40 years before…but we succeeded with what we attempted to do with this record. So if I were to judge it on the fact that there’s nothing I want to change, then yeah, it’s the best Lips album. With every other record I always want to go back and change something.”
Best or not, there’s arguably more expectations for this release than any prior – like they’re Radiohead or something. Embryonic, their last proper album, was their first to debut in Billboard’s top ten albums. In the three and a half years since they’ve only increased their profile: TV commercials in front of America’s largest viewing audience, collaborations with celebrities, a steady stream of coverage on the most popular music news sites….
With this release there are all sorts of expectations from all sorts of listeners – old fans, festival goers that stumbled upon them, critics, TV watchers that heard one of their songs in an ad, hipsters betting against their “redemption” – and a large audience waiting not just for something great, but something new. “By now, people expect us to change,” Steven told lawrence.com. “I think it forces us to keep making left turns and evolving.” For all that’s changed, the band seems more concerned now than ever with change, and Drozd specifically with what fans will and won’t hear in that regard.
“We think it’s a different trip,” he explained to Stereogum, “but I’m always surprised when people hear our new stuff and they don’t think it’s very different from what we’ve done before.”
Unlike other material from the past few years it wasn’t written out of jams, nor was it written out of chord structures like their output before that. “With Embryonic, we jammed and then turn those jams into songs,” Steven explained to Pitchfork. “This time, we’d record a couple sounds and then say, “Hey, let’s turn a couple of sounds that we like into an entire song.” There’s not a lot of songs that have chord progressions. A lot of them are just droney moods that are sustained for two or three minutes. It’s a different kind of trip for us.”
He added to Stereogum, “it’s definitely a shift from Embryonic. To me it’s kind of like Embryonic meets The Soft Bulletin in a weird way, where it’s like super lo-fi, there’s a lot of atonal stuff, there’s also some, for lack of a better word, pretty melodies. But it was all done very quickly. We didn’t really sit around trying to write songs. Wayne and I would go into his studio here in Oklahoma City and we would get the drum machine going and it was like, “Oh that sounds cool, record that,” and then we put some keyboard line down that just sounded cool. We didn’t know what the chords were, we didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of what it was going to be. We were really just recording blindly by using sound, and then a song would be finished in just a couple of days. That’s kind of a new thing for us. To do a whole record like that is kind of a new process for us.”
Wayne Coyne echos the notion that seems to have become his mantra – “CHAOS, CONTROL, CHANGE . . . REPEAT” – in his Terror press release statement. “What we can’t control… if you are like me… we try to control. What we can change, we try to change… And so, maybe when we are immersed in chaos for too long, we long for stability or control. And maybe when we have control for too long, we have a desire for chaos. Or maybe we are just hungry worms… yeah… worms that are a thousand feet long… and we are eating our own tail… but we don’t know that, yeah, when we HAVE control, we fear LOSING control… but we think we WANT control… and then chaos comes in and shows us that, if we had control, our lives would be safe… or predict-able…or boring???”
This isn’t a new idea. Wayne explained to Pitchfork in 2011 “You go back and forth. The minute we get immersed in something that’s a complete mind-fuck, we want to go back to something that’s normal and about music and notes and expression. When we were doing Zaireeka back in 1997, we were totally immersed in this thing that bombarded you from four sides, and then we went on to do things that became The Soft Bulletin. One experience makes you long for the other.” This notion has become one way of interpreting The Lips – now thirty year – career. The sonic disorder they shot for on their ’80s LPs was controlled into their early ’90s gems. Then came their first major change: the addition of guitarist Ronald Jones and drummer/ multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd. Eventual turmoil within that line-up mid-decade led to their most chaotic – but arguably most controlled – album yet, Zaireeka. That fed into more changes (The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi) and then more chaos (Embryonic and the series of zany E.P.s and projects that followed).
So where does this place the Lips now with The Terror?
“We create the chaos BECAUSE we have control… Like I said (or like I feared), we are hungry worms…” Wayne concludes in his Terror notes.
“It felt a little different for us,” Steven notes in We Don’t Control the Controls, “but in some ways it also felt like if you took one element of Embryonic and said you’re going to go in that direction, I could see The Terror being that direction...”
The Terror is another left turn for the band – sonically the result of their recent interest in music making apps, lyrically bleaker than their quirky, life-affirmative best known work – one that distances them from the sunny day-glow caricature casual fans associate them with, but that idea itself distanced them from their earlier selves. And in that sense – that they are continually moving in a different direction – it is very much the same. It’s deeper than that though, as Steven explained to Fuse. “People forget, or didn’t know in the first place, that before “Do You Realize” and confetti canons and animals dancing onstage, the Lips were a serious and dark band with an attitude of, like, “We’re all fucked.” The Lips I came to know and love in 1990 were that band. The Terror has been the undercurrent of Wayne’s psyche this whole time.”
Ultimately The Terror is quintessential Lips. Spaceships, God, pain, stars, fear, love, death, admitting to really not understanding, celestial harmonies, Floydian influences and – of course – the sun.
Look…The Sun Is Rising
“Well, the sun’s in the sky, it swings and it sways
But it don’t shine on Tuesdays, and it’s cloudy all day
It’s just like before…”
Not every Flaming Lips adventure is fantastical, but – in the last decade at least – they tend to express conflict through (the illusion of) sunsets and resolution through exulting the sun rise. The last lyric on last year’s Heady Fwends is “it’s hard to say goodbye when the sun is setting in the sky.” Likewise 2009’s Embryonic optimistically ends “oh, oh, oh the sun’s gonna rise,” and 2006’s At War With the Mystics closes on the image of holding “our breath ’til the morning comes and at last the sun shines through.”
If Yoshimi’s finale can be imaged as a fantastical journey fading into a sunset that echos the album’s key line (“realize the sun doesn’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round“), now they are at the opposite pole: starting, staring at the rising sun, in terror.
“I know this is normally an optimistic statement,” Wayne explains in his album notes, “but here, it signals the enemy…like the way a vampire dreads the dawn. There is a time at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning when, after you’ve been up all night, there is sense that you have escaped from your life…from your routines…from your responsibilities…but you don’t know it; you are just ﬂoating unaware of the fake freedom you are experiencing…and then you look over your shoulder and you catch a glimpse of the horrible solar rule – the rule that says, “a new day will come”…the rule that says, “time marches on.” We are, if we are lucky, obedient slaves to the wonderful sun… but, yeah…we are slaves…we owe everything to it…and we know we cannot escape it.”
“This thing that has always told us the answer, always told us about life, always…and then this is the one time we sing about the idea that when the sun comes up… we become like the sun itself, or like the moon, or like the trees, or like the birds – the sun tells us, ‘you’re supposed to go in this pattern’…the sun will almost tell us against even what we want to happen,” Wayne elaborates in We Don’t Control The Controls. “There have been a couple of times over the last few years when we’ve said that out loud,” he adds to musicradar.com, “we think it’s four in the morning, but it’s really six-thirty, and we know what that means: ‘Fuck, the sun is coming up.’
This is merely the introduction to a much longer post on The Terror, its themes and a discussion of every track. The rest will be published as a lead up to its April 16th American release. Pre-order now at the Lips’ online store.