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Gibby Haynes may be the only person in America who begrudges the Flaming Lips’ late-career success. When the Butthole Surfers singer viewed the Lips through his rearview mirror back in the late ’80s, he probably saw a bunch of Philistines: a band whose inept pyrotechnics got its bass player’s hair torched, whose psych wasn’t really all that demented, who merely sang about LSD.
And now the Flaming Lips are as obligatory at summer festivals as henna tattoos and bottled water, and Haynes is left grumbling about his inferiors in the great, even moving, Lips documentary Fearless Freaks: “Uh, how would I describe a Flaming Lips show to someone who’d never seen it?” he says. “Well, I’d first ask them if they’d ever seen a Butthole Surfers show.” Later, Haynes jokes that Lips frontman Wayne Coyne’s biggest asset is multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd.
Haynes is right, sort of—Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins hold things down musically while Coyne plays Arena Messiah, a role at which he’s become adept in the past few years. But what Haynes fails to appreciate is Coyne’s ability to sell it and mean it. That’s a skill Haynes couldn’t master, which is why his obit will surely end with the Buttholes’ Beck-lite 1996 novelty hit “Pepper” while the Flaming Lips survived a similar moment that found them playing “She Don’t Use Jelly” at 90210’s Peach Pit.
Eventually, Coyne’s cherry-red hair turned gray, and with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, he suddenly started sounding like an adult. His voice cracked a little on the high notes and grounded the album’s buzzy symphonies in melancholia, marrying the cosmic with real life. On 2002’s messy follow-up Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Lips got more explicitly weepy with their perfect single “Do You Realize?” where Coyne’s death fixation pierced his band’s trademark kitschy gospel-pop bubble.
And here’s what a lot of us realized with Yoshimi: Beneath all that studio trickery, Wayne Coyne is a great guy. In Fearless Freaks we see Coyne doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with writing big exploding pop. We see him mowing his lawn and talking about his deceased workaholic father. We see him as one of the few guys in his depressed Oklahoma City neighborhood who’s not forever bringing home bad luck in the bed of his truck. He’s got zany ideas about what to do for Halloween or his never-ending Christmas on Mars flick. So what if he admits to wondering if Drozd, his Lips bandmate and lead actor in Mars, will die from heroin abuse before filming ends? The puppets and the humor help. So do the fake blood (Haynes wants his fake blood back), the bullhorn (Haynes wants his bullhorn back), dancing go-go girls (Haynes wants his girls back), and most famously the giant plastic bubble that Coyne crawled into to surf Coachella’s crowd (Doh! Haynes never thought of that).
I know people like Coyne. They’re the ones who suck in optimism like oxygen, who rally behind trips to demolition derbies, who let their kids tag their bedroom walls with freaky codes and cartoons—the kind of scrawl that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Lips album cover. And when At War With the Mystics arrived in the mail, I knew I’d hate it. And to hate it meant having to bust on Coyne, the equivalent of shitting on rainbows, newspaper sailboats, bottle rockets at midnight, kick-the-can, and all other happy things.
Showmanship, as a rule, can turn a singer into either a preacher or a bad actor whose onstage banter is the same from one city to the next. Coyne has avoided those rock tropes because his prop-assisted theater feels real and homey. Coyne’s job is to conduct, coax, and cajole, whether he’s getting his bandmates to wear bunny suits or an audience to sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Bono commands no such power.
But now we have Mystics and a throat-clearing moment.
Uh…Wayne? You’re not really a messiah. Or a wizard or a pied piper or a Willy Wonka or any such bullshit designation. You’ve been goofing on arena messiahs so long you’ve forgotten where the lines are. You’re just supposed to play it cool and fun and sometimes existential, man. But then we invaded Iraq, and you had to make an album full of political nonsense. The band’s press sheet—sent with the promo—includes a letter from Coyne, who’s his own worst critic:
“We couldn’t ignore the frat-boy arrogance of Cheney and Rove or the sad, strange, brave behavior of Cindy Sheehan. There were (and continue to be) so many days when the sickening news of yet another suicide bomber would shock us away from our exploration of a new mega-flanger guitar effect[…].We felt…or…we reacted…as if we should say something…?”
Those ellipses suggest that even Coyne doubts the ability of a mega-flanger to pull Iraq back from civil war. He says as much in the letter before giving his audience a backrub: “No group (The Flaming Lips, the Bush administration, the left, the right, the Islamics, the Christians) ever speaks louder than the quiet flame of the inner life that burns in solitude within all of us.”
Yuck. Haynes isn’t the only one rolling his eyes—maybe even Coyne is, too.
He’s since argued with his bandmates about Mystic’s message. He claims it’s not anti-Bush at all, while his bassist, Ivins, has disagreed in print, saying the album is explicitly political. It’s hard to have a problem with Coyne’s big-eyed wonder at the world—after all, it’s a huge part of his band’s appeal. But here, the Lips’ stuff is so ineffectively topical it feels as if the robots have started winning.
It’s too easy to boil down Mystic’s songs to labels like the Gwen Songs, the “Yeah” Song, the Song That Sounds Like Floyd, the Just-Keep-On-Livin’ Song. And when you can do that, the mystery fades. Allusions become declarations, references to science articles Coyne’s read become catalogs of famous names, and the songs start to sound an awful lot like novelties.
“The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)” is built on whooshing, panned, Munchkin-like—yes—“yeah”s before the whole thing goes deliriously candy-coated. “The Sound of Failure/It’s Dark…Is It Always This Dark??” is one of two Gwen Songs. As the title telegraphs, this is also a Sad Song, so we get plaintive Coyne singing, “So go tell Britney/And go tell Gwen.” It’s a rebuke of mainstream pop bubbleheads and a response to how friends going through some bad shit (cancer in the fam) felt when they suffered through a Black Eyed Peas song on the radio. Blaming the Peas for cancer seems a little harsh, but more important, Coyne the existentialist Everyman wouldn’t dare do something as banal as listen to pop radio.
Even when Coyne is at his empathetic best—his funny-little-frog voice has never been warmer than on “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion (The Inner Life as Blazing Shield of Defiance and Optimism as Celestial Spear of Action)”—it’s impossible to overlook Mystics’ XXL clunkers. The Mr. Roboto–humping–Prince falsetto turd-stomp of “Free Radicals (A Hallucination of the Christmas Skeleton Pleading With a Suicide Bomber)” won’t fade from your memory while you stare up at the night sky with Coyne on “Vein of Stars” and ponder the idea of no heaven and no hell: “Who knows/Maybe there isn’t/A vein of stars calling out my name/Who know-uh-ooohs.”
“Haven’t Got a Clue,” another of the touted anti-Bush songs, is yet another novelty jingle—drum-machine bleats, hummed power chords, and guitar strums borrowed from “Do You Realize?” And even that would be fine if Coyne weren’t seemingly addressing the president with lyrics such as: “Every time you state your case/The more I want to punch your face.”
With “The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat),” the Lips throw up a fuzzed-out “Cinnamon Girl” riff before a power-to-the people slogan and their very own foreign-policy critique. “They got their weapons to solve all your questions/They don’t know what it’s for….To just want more and more.” Coyne has more to say—something about magic wands (“I got a trick/A magic stick that will make them all fall”). Coyne says that it’s inspired by seeing a homeless person battling his imagined demons with a stick.
It’s the kind of drive-by inspiration that Coyne should have left alone. When the album isn’t working in slogans and bumper stickers, it feels born from the click of a remote control. Coyne says he was “imagining Gwen Stefani” on “It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big and I Am So Small…Do I Stand a Chance?” “I pictured her singing it and imagined what kind of production would happen.” Coyne is much better when he’s not watching MTV.
Long before Coyne traded his trademark suit for the leather pants of a rock god, he was recording boom-box experiments in parking lots, yielding Zaireeka, the band’s four-CD set you had to play all at once. “The idea that people believe in me really affected me,” Coyne says in Freaks of those semi-old days. “I’m going to prove to them that I’m worthy of their belief.”
In the context of Mystics, this kind of sentiment means straining for importance. But what made the Flaming Lips remain so drool-worthy for so long is the band’s refusal to be relevant. They made their psych experiments in beat-up Oklahoma City garages. And people came, and they were surprised at how good a party Coyne could throw. Even Haynes realizes this. After stringing together a list of put-downs, Haynes gives in and tells the Freaks cameras that the Lips “never sold out like the Butthole Surfers.” That’s true. But with Mystics, Coyne forgets an obvious rule of showmanship: Nobody likes to feel they’re being sold something. CP