Neither afraid of a high concept, nor delightfully head-scratching contradiction, The Flaming Lips has made persistent, restless reinvention as much of a calling card as its decidedly wackadoo live extravaganzas, costumed pageantry and tripped-out visuals.
In an impressively prolific run spanning four decades and numerous distinct musical eras (weathering both lineup shakeups and stylistic overhauls) Oklahoma City's favorite weirdo rock band has remained remarkably relevant, even as its entered the band's most unapologetically experimental period courtesy inspirational ringleader Wayne Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins.
The Flaming Lips' latest reality-bending concept album, Oczy Mlody, represents yet another unexpected turn. But what's most surprising is how it manages to embrace the band's past, while still searching and propelling itself into uncharted waters.
Produced by The Flaming Lips and longtime collaborator Dave Fridmann, Oczy Mlody marries the caustic improvisational urgency of 2009's Embryonic with the lush orchestral pop arrangements of 1999's The Soft Bulletin. It layers the goosebumps-raising, horror flick dissonance of 2013's The Terror atop the lavish melodies, droning synths and flittering electronics that recall the celebratory bravado of 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Oczy Mlody also soothes the band's recent dread-inducing anxiety with a newfound consciousness-altering serenity.
But as the self-titled opening overture and the first song "How??" make immediately clear, the album feels completely of this moment, with its gorgeous icy palette of laptop beats, glitchy sequencers, and shimmering mellotron strings. It's the prettiest sounding album the Lips have made in years, thanks to Drozd's masterful flair for orchestrating. That's particularly true of one of the catchiest tracks on the album, "Sunrise (Eyes Of The Young)," which debuted in a slightly different form on the band's collaborative Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz album. Amid pitch-shifted piano strikes and a warped electronic heartbeat, Coyne's unique cracking falsetto soars as he ruminates on the phantom limb ache of love and loss: "Tell me love is neither living or dying / It's a power in your mind / I think it's with you all the time / It only hurts when it leaves you."
As Coyne has described it, "Oczy Mlody" is actually a Polish term that translates to "eyes of the young." But to flesh out the album's ambitious thematic arc, he fixated on how the words sounded similar to "Oxy" (as in, Oxycodone), and re-envisioned its meaning to form an extended allegory: A drug-induced, dark night of the soul — one of self-rediscovery. Coyne envisions a recreational wonderdrug from a not-so-distant future that induces a deep sleep, where the user's subconscious is transported into a fairy tale, childhood dreamscape. When they wake, they find themselves cured of life's personal and emotional problems. It's a characteristically bizarre "Wayne-being-Wayne" concept. But eye-rolling aside, Coyne lets his outwardly joyful persona stray into some of the darker recesses of his imagination, particularly in the album's backbone, roughly from "Nigdy Nie (Never No)" to the multi-part "Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes." As each track seamlessly segues to the next in a hazy blur, this winding suite portrays a stormy nightmare of creatures and characters. That mood finally lets up with "The Castle," another earnestly romantic pop song that finds Coyne evoking fantasy imagery to admire the beauty and mind of the woman he loves: "Her brain was a castle / and the castle gets mistaken for a ship that's floating in the clouds," he sings against a fluttering arpeggiator and oscillating harmonies.
The album ends with "We A Famly," a feel-good call-and-response duet between Coyne and Miley Cyrus. Beginning with electronic sequencer bloops that cascade downward to form a polyrhythmic waterfall, Coyne yearns over a star-crossed love, long separated, and his own emotional thawing after a "long cold winter." Cyrus responds sweetly, unable to imagine life without him. Then, with the simple refrain, "It's you and me... we a family," the song transforms into an anthem of belonging and renewed hope. Ultimately, like many of The Flaming Lips' best albums, Oczy Mlody is a work of meditation and escape, but also one that combats evil forces with positivity and empathy, a search for light amid the cosmic darkness that surrounds us.
After so many releases, maybe it's been easy to take The Flaming Lips' unpredictability for granted or grow numb to its oddball surprises. But where most bands at this point in their careers might be tempted to downshift, one has to marvel at how The Flaming Lips has remained as productive and creatively curious as ever.