Matt Fraction lives in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon, with his family of coyote, deer, and beloved humans. He writes or wrote comic books like Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Thor, Hawkeye, Casanova and Satellite Sam while free-associating at mattfraction.com and @mattfraction on Twitter.
The nervous breakdown that’s bubbled just under the surface of the Flaming Lips’ output since 1999’sThe Soft Bulletin has arrived, fully formed, at long last, on The Terror. A nervous, buzzing, seething sweep of a record less about songs and more about movements, maybe, The Terror finds the still Oklahoma City-based Lips pushing further and further away from three-minute bytes of radio-friendly units of data (because, really, what the fuck does that even mean anymore?) and deeper into territory found on discs like 1997’s Zaireeka and 2009’s Embryonic. Finally, something to keep the second side of Abbey Road uneasy company on your iPod, only this time we’ll take nothing with us in the end.
This record seethes with dread. There’s a paranoiac buzz over The Terror like a hummingbird’s wings. That grit of sand that crept into Wayne Coyne’s voice a few years ago has spread over the whole affair now; a pearly hum coats every sonic wave and audio landscape on this record as it unfurls, frequently conjoined by seamless segues, one moment into the next. Loops and shrieks and beats transform The Terror into a giant, swooning symphony of unrest and anxiety. “Finally the punks have taken acid” indeed — but it’s ended real, real bad.
The boys sound like they have a lot on their minds: titles like “You Lust,” “You Are Alone,” “Turning Violent,” and “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” betray only that the fright without matches the fright within. Moments of hope poke out here and there like anxious little sprouts — the glorious chorus of “Try to Explain” can hang in the rafters with any of the Lips’ best moments, for example — but then is followed with a sad dismissal packed inside of Coyne’s ghostly drone-echo: “Try to explain/ Why you’ve changed/ I don’t think I’ll understand… Try to explain/ Why you’re leaving…” At least Ithink that’s what he’s saying. Coyne is as much an ambient instrument here as anything else Steven Drozd or Michael Ivins (or Kliph Spurlock or Derek Brown, jusy to get the whole lineup in there) can whip up: even Drozd’s falsetto takes on a castrato’s asthmatic panic underneath it all. The party has turned itself into an appropriately psychedelic funeral dirge fired into the heart of the sun. This is the Flaming Lips vs. The Death of Everything and by the last sounds of The Terror you’re not going to be sure if the good guys will pull off this one or not. We are all alone together.
The Lips have always flirted with the dark side of stuff — with a grin, with a whiff of ironic detachment, with an almost youthful dismissal — for their entire careers, from the giant, dick-riding skeleton on the cover of 1987’s Hear it is to the plaintive siren wails of “Mr. Ambulance Driver” on 2006’s At War with the Mystics. Death, sickness, age, all that shit could be dealt with later. For now, whip a bloody fistful of glitter at it and dance. That’s been the thing the Flaming Lips’ music has excelled at, really; their records are trickster soundtracks battling back the incipient darkness that comes along with the decay of youth, and suiting up against depression and the creeping angst that being alive long enough can generate.
Something’s changed now, though, in a very real way: maybe the Lips’ insistence on releasing works less and less recognizable as songs through more and more boutique venues and experiments — a Zip drive inside a human heart! A Zip drive inside a gummi brain! A Pink Floyd cover album! — have led them to this ultimate indulgence: a record that lets them really be melancholy, a record that really embraces hopelessness. Although at this point, if you’ve been following the band through every whim and iteration and experiment, The Terror should come as no surprise: fuck it, why even break up the tracks anymore? The final Flaming Lips gimmick: The good news is we’re making a record. The bad news is we’re all gonna die.
Maybe it was turning 50. Maybe it was just time. Over the last few years and releases Coyne and company have systematically destroyed the band that made The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The Terror is more like their Kid A — hard even to tell who plays what anymore. It sounds like they’ve taught that Herbie Hancock room of dancing “Rockit” robots how to be the Flaming Lips, then beat the shit out of them with hammers, then pressed record. There’s nothing young or playful onThe Terror. The decades-long arrested development of the Flaming Lips sounds very definitively over, at least for the time being, and they’ve let the full weight of their worries take the wheel for a little while. It is, in almost every way, unlike anything we’ve ever heard from them before, familiar but new in form and content. However, if digging out a USB drive from a gummi skull didn’t alienate you, how could this?
This record stands as a portrait of a band that decided the joke just isn’t funny anymore; resolving how that squares with the Lips’ identity to date lands squarely on your shoulders, gentle listener. Sooner or later everyone has a bad day, a sad day. Why shouldn’t the Lips be allowed to turn theirs into a record’s-worth of seeking and purging? The dawn doesn’t come but for fleeting glimpses and so, yeah, that takes an adjustment of expectations. But that’s our baggage, not theirs, and it’s unfair to saddle them with it. Before, they’d looked at the dark stuff and managed to shrug it off, to laugh at it, to try and transmogrify grief and dread into joy; now… well, the worms’ll get us all some day. The band that asked us “Do You Realize?” very clearly now realizes it for themselves. That mask of cavalier bravery fell and what’s left sounds like a band reborn without their skin — howling and baying in vain. The nervous chuckling subsides and the Lips cast our gaze into the abyss with them.
I think about Wayne Coyne’s voice, that punky falsetto of his, and how, over the last wave of albums, it’s sounded rougher and rougher, a butterfly’s wings dissolving in the breeze. His instrument bears the sonic flecks and streaks of grey-white that Coyne’s hair carries these days. As the band’s figurehead and Chief Operating Visionary, it’s hard to separate the vision from the seer, and his joyous anti-grunge lilt is now grip-tape rough and spent. He sounds older now. He sounds old. Maybe The Terror comes from that inevitable confrontation that awaits everybody lucky enough not to live fast and die young, that date over every bathroom sink, staring into the mirror at some old fucker that stole your face and ruined it. The Terror plays as if Wayne Coyne looked out of his giant bubble one day and saw that an army of skeletons was keeping him aloft. Leave the bunny suits at home this time: we’re all going home covered in black confetti.
What I keep coming back to with The Terror is its lack of catharsis. When skating atop or diving deep down into the black water in the past, however momentary a trip it may have been, the Lips have always found moments of majesty and dignity, of almost-imperial triumph or at least poignant universal acceptance. There’s no such release on The Terror. Like a nightmare, it simply stops, spitting us out on the other end. Does art, with subject matter as bleak and dire as this need some moment of transformation, of release? Do explorations of emotional darkness like this need to end with the rose-red dawning of a better, or at least more gentle, tomorrow? There’s certainly something therapeutic in that kind of venting, artistically, and if nothing else no one can accuse them of being stagnant. But at the same time you might not want to listen to it all that much.
Does that mean The Terror fails? On the contrary — it ruminates about disturbing things and so it is, by its very nature, disturbing. Shot through with synth wave after synth wave of anxiety, fear, and intoxicatingly heroic doses of angst, The Terror keeps the Lips moving onwards, ever onwards, to the great inevitable that awaits us all. I’m hesitant to say something so vibrant and alive, in spite of its subject matter, could ever sound “bleak” so, for now, file it under really uneasy listening.