The Flaming Lips, "The Terror" (Warner Bros.-Lovely Sorts of Death) -- Throughout their roller coaster career, from the skronky early days through the compositional peak of "The Soft Bulletin," the Flaming Lips have possessed at least an underlying jovial air. Lead singer Wayne Coyne's scraggly smile has rarely been a cynical smirk. The wild and inventive music, even when going on lyrically about the inevitability of death or describing a wicked spider bite, always has unearthed the hope and celebration lurking within. But when I caught up with Coyne last month at South by Southwest, he was serious, a bit more the intense mad professor than usual. He didn't smile as he said, "The new record is probably going to freak some people out. It is, on purpose, not a hopeful record."
"The Terror," indeed.
The Oklahoma City band's 13th album is a spookhaus of eerie soundscapes and synthesized atmospherics. The nine tracks can hardly be called songs -- they seep into register, they thrum with nervous rhythms, they swirl with noise and fear. "Look...the Sun Is Rising" and "Be Free, a Way" open the album with hopeful titles and hushed, awed chanting, music that never quite gels into melody floating skyward on tissue-soft textures. But from there "The Terror" sinks into a frightening, paralyzing K-hole. The stiff rigor musicus allows little light through the tracks' cracks all the way to the finale, which features this dreary refrain: "Always there / in our hearts / there is evil that wants out / Always there / in our hearts / there are sorrows and sadness."
At SXSW, Coyne was in poor voice; the band's concert run through their album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" was awkward and run through by Coyne's unusually warbling hiccups. On "The Terror," his voice is barely there -- a faint, frightened falsetto throughout, never up front, until during "Turning Violent" his off-key whines crescendo to a repeating refrain that, like a horror film, will have your head spinning as you shout, "Mother, make it stop!"
"The Terror" at least comes on with intent to express something deep and real -- and at least it's a sign that the stale confetti and hamster ball might finally retire from the live show -- it just lacks the wherewithal to see that exploration through. Interesting ideas merely drone instead of developing, and much of the experimentation simply doesn't bear fruit. It's an album that may reward close repeats and would benefit from the kind of communal listening experience initiated by the band's 1997 "Zaireeka" project -- which I would encourage because listening to this album alone, in even the sunniest of rooms, is a recipe for deep despair.