The Flaming Lips sober up, let down

‘At War with the Mystics’ lacks the mystical metaphors of past Lips albums

by Keri Carlson

Instead of an army of giant pink robots, The Flaming Lips have focused their neo-flower-power forces onto something those of us not dropping acid can fear as well.

On the group’s last record, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” evil had the face of a Saturday morning cartoon. On “At War with the Mystics,” The Lips find more concrete enemies from the likes of President George W. Bush and Gwen Stefani.

But as the imagery moves from the abstract to the realistic, much of The Lips’ charm and mysticism is lost.

Before the group used humorous cosmic sci-fi hippie prophesies that led to some beautiful conclusions – from finding we’re all waiting for Superman to asking if you realize that everyone you know someday will die. Through otherworldliness and LSD visions, The Lips created metaphors that hinted at ambiguous answers. With the more direct approach on “Mystics,” these ambiguities fade into protest rally cries.

“You think you’re a radical / But you’re not so radical / In fact you’re fanatical,” Wayne Coyne chants repeatedly on “Free Radicals.”

The Lips continue expanding the fuzzed-out, “Pet Sounds” – inspired pop they’ve been tripping on since “The Soft Bulletin.” But perhaps to fill the void of quirkiness missing from a robot-ass-kicking Japanese girl, the band makes up for the lack of lyrical imagination through the music.

While “Yoshimi” sounded cartoony and was based on bouncy melodies about robots, “Mystics” is more extreme. The album is full of voice manipulations, from chipmunky babbles of “yeah yeah yeah” to low and deep “oh, nos.” This makes “Mystics” sound like the worst of Frank Zappa – which, while it might make some hippie fans happy, is horribly annoying.

When The Lips drop the goofy voices, parts of “Mystics” recall the beauty of “The Soft Bulletin.” In particular “Mr. Ambulance Driver” turns a piercing siren into a pop song. And the album’s most compelling moment comes when Coyne sings, “Mr. Ambulance Driver, I’m not a real survivor / ‘Cause I’m wishing that I was the one that / Wasn’t gonna be here anymore.”

“The Sound of Failure” similarly takes on gorgeous pop orchestration. But the song is a bit tarnished when Coyne interrupts a story of a young girl who lost a friend to get in a cheap shot of, “So go tell Britney and go tell Gwen.” It’s as if Coyne is accusing the pop stars of evil purely because they make happy music. Is that really so wrong? (Besides, Wayne, don’t you realize you and Gwen share a creepy Japanese girl fetish? Surely you two would get along fabulously.)

“Mystics” has quite a few “oh, diss!” moments (“Every time you state your case / The more I want to punch your face”), but these one-liners fall flat in the end. Yeah, Bush sucks and the war sucks, but if this is supposed to inspire the masses, or at least inspire Lips fans to get active and motivated, I’d rather march to “Hollaback Girl.”