Most people would prefer to lead their own lives and not get drawn into the shoddy worlds of power, politics, religious fanaticism, and wars of aggression. But when the apocalypse is pointed at your head like Dick Cheney's rifle, quiet capitulation is no longer an option. The Flaming Lips - chief conceptualist Wayne Coyne and multi-instrumentalists Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins - have come to their own reckoning in this matter, and At War with the Mystics is their rebuttal to the forces shaping our traumatized world.
This isn't an obvious "Bush Is Bad" protest record but rather a profound statement of anger, sorrow, and disenchantment. At War has epic sweep and indie heart. It is these Okie freaks' equivalent of Pink Floyd's Orwellian bent on Animals or (dare I say) The Dark Side of the Moon. In essence, the Lips use words and music as a weapon for metaphysical overthrow of the diseased body politic. By engaging and combating real-world issues with every iota of artistic ordnance they can muster, the Lips have made their best album.
It's a mixed-up, shook-up record, to be sure, with grungy riffing, robotic noise, and atmospheric dissonance counterpointed by exquisite melodies, wistful soundscapes, and clear-headed lyrics. With everything at stake, Coyne holds nothing back. Note that the parenthetical subtitle for the lovely, melancholic "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" is "The Inner Life as Blazing Shield of Defiance, and Optimism as Celestial Spear of Action."
Philosophical musings abound, but so do exhortations to fight the power. Coyne poses big questions about ultimate motives in "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," and he makes like an agitated Prince in "Free Radicals," castigating fanatics on all sides. "Haven't Got a Clue" is a beguiling mixture of straightforward and disorienting music in which Coyne plainly sings, "Every time you state your case / The more I want to punch your face." And "The W.A.N.D." sounds an anthemic call to action with a wickedly noisy riff. The album concludes with "Goin' On," a portentous portrait of a world on the brink of self-annihilation that is majestically sad yet tentatively hopeful.
If you relished the multichannel mix of the Lips' previous opus, 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, you'll be happy to know that a surround version of At War with the Mystics is due in the fall. Meanwhile, a surround mix of their 1999 album has been released as The Soft Bulletin 5.1 in a CD+DVD-Audio edition.
The Lips and coproducer/engineer Dave Fridmann collaborated on the mix, and the results are colorfully unconventional. That's not entirely an endorsement, though. I prefer the stereo "Race for the Prize" to the surround version's off-center placement of vocals and instruments; the song is too good to be subjected to such gimmickry. However, "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" leaps to three-dimensional life, with jolting front-to-rear drum tracks set against more serene, stable orchestration. Whatever the results, it's clear that Fridmann and the Lips threw themselves into this project with creative gusto - after all, the booklet provides explanatory "5.1 Mix Maps" for all the songs. And the bevy of bonus material includes two videos, three outtakes (notably "The Captain"), four songs from radio sessions, and the psychedelic, eye-candy "Bleep-Blops" that accompany the main songs.
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