The Flaming Lips’ latest record is Embryonic, a volatile collage of often paradoxical elements. This album of 18 tracks — split between two discs — is a study of oppositions: It comes across at once as retro and futuristic, regretful and playful and generally an inventive and important release from one of America’s most creative bands.
I think the best way to describe this album is to think of a science fiction film from the 1960s: You know, one of those movies that is set hundreds of years into the future but whose principle characters wear blatantly ’60s styles and use phrases like “far out.” In a similar way, The Lips have produced an album featuring an aesthetic I imagine would have appeared futuristic to someone living back in 1968.
Somehow, the band’s recurring sonic flourishes, like the sound of a spaceship lifting off, and endless ethereal riffages manage to escape sounding cliché. The Lips strategically play our obsession — as well as theirs — with the ’60s against us, claiming that we, in many ways, have not escaped an outdated view of the future. In our contemporary conception of the future, humans might still be saying “far out.” This concept is not hard to believe, especially in a cultural climate where we are all clambering to play Beatles: Rock Band and itching to commodify Bob Dylan musings, disregarding the fact that the “times they are a-changin'” in a much different context.
Musically, other ’60s influences on this album are quite prominent, including the jam-band feel of songs like “Convinced of the Hex,” the Doors-aping of “Sagittarius Silver Announcement,” the Ennio Morricone-like flourishes of “If” and the use of atmospheric Beach Boys harmonies as well as other “pet sounds.”
Some of the coolest tracks on the album, though, are the completely nonsensical ones. “Aquarius Sabotage,” for example, is a jam of noise, distorted harps and what sounds like someone farting into an amplifier that eventually, in a blissful tonal shift, retreats into a somber orchestral outro. Lyrically, the album very much fits with its retro aesthetic, as lead singer Wayne Coyne woefully sings of regret in “Evil,” crooning, “I wish I could go back, go back in time.”
All told, this is not merely a rehashing of previous trends, but an explication of them. Embryonic is a powerful album because it catalyzes an overhaul of our conception of temporality, looking back and looking forward simultaneously.