Every time I put on headphones and check out a new Flaming Lips album for the first time, it feels like walking off a space rocket onto a planet never seen up close by human eyes. You have some basic knowledge of what it should be like, but you're never quite ready for what you're about to experience.
With the Lips' music, you can usually expect a unique brand of space-rock, chocked full of oddball lyrics, otherworldly sound effects, and the familiar, jaunty screeching of front man Wayne Coyne howling amongst a wall of disparate sounds. Embryonic fits that mold, but one-ups it in artistry and ambition.
Disclaimer: If you're expecting the upbeat, catchy hit single-making Lips a la "Do You Realize??", "She Don't Use Jelly," and "Mr. Ambulance Driver," you're going to be disappointed.
As a Pitchfork writer noted in his review (which gave Embryonic 9.0/10), the Lips are going for a darker, post-apocalyptic sound. It didn't really surprise me that, when I took a rough little survey via text message, one of my friends said it agitated her -- she didn't think she could listen to it all the way through again. Not that she thought it was bad music, but that it grated on her nerves. And she's right. It's so raw, so spontaneous, so . . . not thoroughly and crisply produced as everything from them since The Soft Bulletin (1999). There's a lot of hum and buzz in the guitars, hearkening back to earlier days. It's hard to describe Embryonic without just playing it for you, but just imagine that you're sitting in a folding chair, watching a tripped out, demented rock band jam out in a ratty garage, and you can just feel the electricity from their guitars and keyboards shooting through your veins, and you're sweating from the sheer heat of intensity.
The first time I gave it a listen, I kept arrowing through the tracks waiting to find one that was zippy and hopeful like you'd expect. If you download the deluxe iTunes version with four extra songs, you can listen to "UFOs Over Baghdad," which is nicer-sounding, and "I Can Be a Frog" (featuring a special cameo singer) is kinda playful. The overall emotion conveyed in Embryonic, though, is doom, and that was disappointing at first. I decided that I loved the Flaming Lips too much to give up after one listen. (Plus I actually paid for this album . . . Been awhile, and it's my first iTunes transaction.) I have to say, it grew on me. Or maybe I should say -- considering how I haven't memorized many song lyrics or titles -- it's still growing on me.
This works so well as a concept album that it's impossible to pick out best or favorite songs from the bunch. In fact, it's difficult even to detect the seams between songs. You can't just listen to one and then move on to something else; you'll want to keep listening, letting the spellbinding opus unfold. I will say, however, that I listen to "Convinced of the Hex," "The Ego's Last Stand," and "Worm Mountain" most frequently.
I'm not promising that everyone who loved the Flaming Lips in the past will like what they hear, but I certainly approve of this new development. With 22 songs in this double album's deluxe version -- 18 songs without the bonuses -- there's a lot here to chew on, and should keep hardcore Lips fans busy for a long time. The really weird thing is that their previous work sounds extra soft-n-fuzzy to me now. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), for example, seems so warm and cuddly compared to Embryonic, even its its creepiest moments.
One request for the band before I go: Please, guys, quit making us wait three to four years for albums. I know you love touring, and I have no reservations confirming your live shows are awesome, but I'm curious to see where this new musical direction goes.