Many bands float in the popular consciousness as markers of “highbrow art” and “snobbish fans” without anyone knowing much of their material. One such band is Oklahoma psychedelic rock group The Flaming Lips, a strange rock band popular in the late ‘90s. They’re active even to the present day: in mid-July, they released “King’s Mouth” to the world at large. After nearly a quarter of a century of music, where do The Flaming Lips go now?
The Flaming Lips are one of the most famous rock bands in the post-Nirvana world. Though they formed in 1983, their 1999 album “The Soft Bulletin” is their breakthrough and often called one of the greatest albums ever. They specialize in oddball, psychedelic masterpieces too upbeat to be called elitist and too weird to be called pop. If you find Radiohead too dour, check out “Bulletin” or 2002’s “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.”
Since their heyday, The Flaming Lips have done whatever they wanted. They released an indie film in 2008, their song “Do You Realize??” was formerly the state rock song of Oklahoma, they released special recordings on flash drives encased in oddly-shaped gummies, they’ve collaborated with everyone from Kesha to Biz Markie to Nick Cave to Erykah Badu and they appeared in children’s show “Yo Gabba Gabba.”
In fact, “King’s Mouth” was created as a soundtrack to front man Wayne Coyne’s abstract art exhibit of the same name (and honestly a more expected move than producing an entire Miley Cyrus album). The Flaming Lips revel in pushing boundaries of sound and taste while maintaining excellence and fun. Where does the impulse put the album?
“King’s Mouth” requires two listens, or at least a listen and a half, because The Flaming Lips are initially incomprehensible. For the first four tracks or so, all I could really grasp was a children’s storybook narrator rambling over a 21st century “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The Flaming Lips confuse unsuspecting ears, but once you get your bearings, return to the earlier tracks. Everything will then start to make sense.
To begin the review proper, let’s look at the lyrics. A fairy tale connects “King’s Mouth.” As narrated by Mick Jones of the Clash, a king was born. The child was gigantic, and he loved the sky and space. One day, he became one with the universe and later died saving his kingdom from an avalanche. The rest of the album follows the funeral rites and how people still climb about in the king’s mouth.
The Flaming Lips strike a chord in spite of a scattershot approach. “The King’s Mouth,” at a surface level, is remarkably simplistic lyrics-wise. The album reads like a children’s story, even with two deaths and a funeral sequence. Internal thought is limited. The details are too fanciful and innocent to not disarm the listener.
And yet, “King’s Mouth” has a world-weary undercurrent. On the first track, the audience learns the king’s mother died in labor. His huge size may have killed her, but his stature also indicates he was born to stop the avalanche. When he dies, the citizens have mixed reactions.
They cut off his head, exult, mourn and call the day “a sad and bloody and wonderful happy day.” Coyne claims his tale inverts the typical image of a tyrant’s severed head, but the image and surrounding emotion feels less than fully loving of the king.
Lyrics on “The Sparrow” and “How Many Times” point to a dissatisfaction with the situation. Even though the universe resides in the king’s head, his destiny requires his brawn rather than his mind. On “Dipped in Steel,” The Flaming Lips detail how his head, encased in metal, is either “screaming [his] last scream or breathing [his] last breath or laughing his last, endless, infinite laugh.”
They leave to the listener whether or not the king is happy. Perhaps such an ambiguous moment is even more crushing than simply claiming so.
“King’s Mouth” takes the listener on a musical head trip. Coyne called the album “Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ meets Gregorian chants from the future,” and the description fits. From the first track, The Flaming Lips let loose sunny strummed guitars, incandescent synthesizers and oddball, highly processed vocals coming together in the auditory equivalent of a nebula.
The album is, quite frankly, weird. Melodies intertwine and disperse; voices stutter and wander; structure is a low priority. Despite the chaos, “King’s Mouth” is still a wonderful, accessible listen. The Flaming Lips possess a childlike wonder and curiosity in their compositions. The music’s weirdness comes not from a place of pretension but of genuine love for music. They seem enthused about making whatever their hearts desire, and the freedom to do so is a wonderful experience.
The essential stretch of “King’s Mouth” extends from “Mother Universe” to “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot.” Here, the Flaming Lips best achieve their sonic goals. The songs transition from bright, expansive, adventuresome tunes to tense, dirty rock. Ragged highs and filthy lows come naturally to The Flaming Lips, and the middle set of “King’s Mouth” works perfectly.
“King’s Mouth” does suffer from an extended ending. When the king dies and the funeral ceremonies begin, 17 minutes are left of less than 42 minutes of material. The music here is still somewhat lovely, but The Flaming Lips put their best ideas closer to the beginning. The ending sequence is beautiful, but “The King’s Mouth” overextends it.
Maybe complaining about abstract art exhibit music’s pacing problems misses the point. “King’s Mouth” is not supposed to be tight or a perfect album. All The Flaming Lips wanted to do was have fun with a simple story and some quirky music. The desire to simply create and explore pervades the album in a way few groups dare.
The Flaming Lips create something lovely with “King’s Mouth.” A profound childishness, a simple sadness and some lovely music bounce off each other. Sometimes the album is confusing, and sometimes the album simply does not click. But taken together, the songs become a psychedelic beauty. I would not call the album a greatest or most essential album, but “King’s Mouth” will simply bring joy to the listener. Treat yourself to some Flaming Lips.