Album Reviews: At War with the Mystics by The Flaming LipsWhen your albums fly into space and contemplate man's significant insignificance within the grand universal scheme, well, you're bound to have a few hiccups. For The Flaming Lips, even The Soft Bulletin, rightly hailed as a masterpiece, has a few songs that aren't burning up the playlists of its many fans. Instead of creative misfires, though, At War With The Mystics has a few outright creative power outages.
The band still has its many charms intact; they don't repeat their past work, and they certainly aren't following anyone else's footsteps. For some, these facts alone will grant a free pass. Wayne Coyne is a uniquely compelling frontman, and his voice hasn't lost much of its quirky irresistibility even after dozens of bands have proudly put "Flaming Lips" in the "Sounds Like" column on their MySpace pages. Coyne is extremely effective as the face of the band, but Steven Drozd's musical sorcery is just as vital, bailing out Coyne a few times when he sounds in danger of going on autopilot.
There are moments of star alignment on Mystics, to be sure, where Coyne's contemplative Everyman routine is perfectly offset by the band's memorable and innovative meanderings and experimentation. Too often, though, they compete for airtime with bloated easy-way-outs and formless psychedelic wonkery. Sometimes these collisions come within the same song (or suite), as with the following of the bubbly, annoying "It Overtakes Me" -- redundancy can't always be saved by taking the kitchen-sink approach to effects -- with the fragile ambience of "The Stars Are So Big, I Am So Small…Do I Stand A Chance?"
There are numerous small treasures scattered throughout, like a musical Easter egg hunt. An example is the punching-your-face vocal noise that Coyne makes on "Haven't Got A Clue," or how he embellishes or strangles certain phrases, like "calling out my name" on "Vein of Stars." Some songs are easier to categorize as straight-up hits or misses. "The Sound of Failure" is an easy, breezy highlight with a friendly, signature melody -- a component that is mostly lacking -- while "Free Radicals" is such a clunker that it sounds deliberate.
The most-discussed developments involve an embrace of Lips past (rock!) and present (politics!). "The W.A.N.D." represents an intersection of the two, and is a highlight as it stomps along with fuzzy urgency, serving as a loose call-to-arms about taking the power back. But politics aren't Coyne's lyrical forte, as shown by the amateurish "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" and "Free Radicals." The Lips seem better suited to interlocking realms of the personal and the universal: death and stars and spiders and the like. Regardless of subject, hopefully next time they'll write some better songs to explore them -- they certainly are capable of more than Mystics. -- Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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