Good non-country bands come out of Oklahoma about once every...hmm...well, good non-country bands don't come out of Oklahoma. The fact that one of the weirdest, most-popular experimental bands in the United States came out of Oklahoma City is an underdog tale rivaling that of George Mason and Buster Douglas. First, let's get what we already knew about the Flaming Lips out on the table.
- They use fake blood at live shows.
- They're the darlings of all the jamband festivals.
- They sound like a cross between Pink Floyd, Peter Frampton, and a junior high band that just discovered sound effects records.
- They the most unlikely "one-hit wonder" ever, considering they're more popular now than they were when "She Don't Use Jelly" was on the radio.
I think that about covers it. Here's what you might not know about them...and here's what was reaffirmed to me by listening to their latest, At War with the Mystics. They have a lot of depth to them. And before I get too deep into the lyrics and emotions, realize that they are still at all times very Flaming Lips-y on this album. Case in point: the album opener (aptly titled "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song") combines interesting hypothetical lyrics ("If you could make your own money and then give it to everybody/Would you do it?/If you knew all the answers and could give it to the masses/Would you do it?") with the fact that roughly the first 74 words of the song are "Yeah" (and that's saying nothing of the 180-"Yeah" breakdown toward the end). You don't get that from just anybody.
Lyrically, the general theme of At War With the Mystics seems to be external and internal power struggles. Amazon.com's review says the album "is an intelligent and searing indictment of George W. Bush, his administration, suicide bombers, superficiality and undeserved stardom--branding them all sinners of similar stripe," and that's basically what I got too (I'm struggling to find where Coyne himself said this was about Shrub, but it seems to be in every review, so I'll assume he said it somewhere). The first two songs ("Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" and "Free Radicals") contain choruses of "What would you do with all your power?" and "You think you're radical/But you're not so radical/In fact you're fanatical". From there, though, the battle goes back and forth between confidence and insecurity, upbeat anthemic songs ("The W.A.N.D.") and slower, meandering ones ("The Sound of Failure").
Just in case you were thinking that maybe Coyne and the Lips are in any way normal, feel free to read this Glide Magazine article where he gives comments for each song. A sampling (about "The W.A.N.D."):
I was playing electric guitar, Michael was on fuzzwah bass and Steven was on the drumkit and we stumbled upon this druggy prog-rock riff and stuttery, funky beat. It was like Black Sabbath getting mashed up with Sly and the Family Stone or Stevie Wonder, and it sent us off in a wonderful new direction. The idea of a magic wand and magic powers occurred to me while watching a homeless guy in Oklahoma City. He was, I believe, Vietnamese, and had a cool looking wizardly beard and mustache and he carried a long stick, which he used as a kind of cane-weapon. And one day I saw him fighting an "imagined" enemy and the long stick became (as best I could tell) a kind of magic wand that made his invisible foe retreat. I mean... it seemed to give him a confidence that allowed him to defeat his hallucinations...and at first I thought "how sad...he believes this old stick is saving him"... but the more I thought about it, the more I envied him in a way...for the evil manifestations of his mind he invented a sparkling sorcerer's baton to lead his psychic revolution...yes!!...
And so we delved into a kind of radical protest rock mentality...We sing, "We got the power now, motherfuckers, that's where it belongs", but I believe it's cosmically empowering - not actually empowering. In the song, we rail against the greedy, corrupt evil beings who are in control and trying to enslave us... But our rebellion is simply to fight back - we have no solutions.
Seriously, though...whatever the strange inspirations, the Flaming Lips are, in some way, a pretty heartwarming tale. They're doing things 100% their way, they're more popular now than when they were on the radio, they always take chances, and they have something to say, politically and musically. As I've said before, one of the ways I judge an album is how well it got my own creative juices flowing...well, this one's pretty much off the charts in that regard.