Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Flaming Lips' "Oczy Mlody:" A Non-Euclidean Escape

I watched Obama’s election as I was moving to Austin from Carrollton with no small amount of anticipation and excitement, and when he won the Presidency the world felt different. Although might have been inexperienced at the time, I had some conviction that he had the best interests of the country at heart, an opinion that did not change much during his tenure. I was proud to be an American and was genuinely hopeful about the future.

This inauguration, conversely, filled me with dread. I felt, and still feel, anxious about the natural and social environment that my kids will be looking at in the near and far future. Like many, I have traveled through stages in dealing with this new reality, so during my denial phase I made it my goal to avoid the inauguration entirely to keep the ratings down. This may seem escapist, but I justified it by showing my lack of support in any way possible. The same weekend, I put Oczy Mlody in rotation.

There seemed to be no better way to escape reality than to sink into the soft non-euclidean psychedelia of The Flaming Lips. Very few bands have been able to retain both a modicum of visibility and the kind of artistic freedom that The Flaming Lips enjoy. They could literally put out an album of duck sounds and people would at least take notice. That being said, I was on the fence about this one.

In the band’s primary narrative, there has been an attempt to collapse their experimental side with mainstream songwriting in search of a singular, cohesive statement. This, I like. Simultaneously, however, they have been diversifying in ways that aren’t as convincing, releasing shark-jumping cover albums and collaborations. Despite my long-term investment in the band, these recent releases made me consider taking a pass on Oczy Mlody. The video for The Castle, however, immediately sold me.

Oczy Mlody is the first “proper” Flaming Lips album since The Terror, which took darker themes and washed them over with buzzy experimentalism. In comparison, Oczy Mlody juxtaposes brighter, trippy songs against psychedelic sound experiments. This approach allows them to incorporate a broad spectrum of sounds that they have explored in other non-traditional formats, from multi-jambox CD releases to flash drives released in gummi skulls.

But I see The Flaming Lips as primarily an album band. For decades, they have released consistently coherent recordings that are best digested as a whole, rather than as a collection of singles. Oczy Mlody is impressively strong in this regard. Paradoxically, however, the individual parts that make up the album feel less focused. There are a few songs that emerge from the experience, but these are surrounded by floating ambient sound experiments, fuzzed-out jams, and spaghetti-western guitar themes.

Although some critics have taken exception to the album’s lack of clear boundaries, my increased interest in instrumental music and soundtracks may have enriched my appreciation of Oczy Mlody. It doesn’t feature the standout melodies of some of their earlier works, but in terms of texture and flow, it’s still quite convincing. At the same time, although it seems that the band is focusing more in being weird than making a clear statement, there does seem to be a coherent narrative that lies beyond the songwriting upon which they built their image.

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