Embryonic, as you probably know from Wayne Coyne’s blanketing press-relations approach, is a double album, which means it’s damn long. Seventy minutes to be exact, though that’s more than short enough to fit on only one disc. That could be said about every double album of all time, though, and that’s beside the point. We’re here for the Flaming Lips, the band with perhaps the longest leash in major-label history. What other group do you know that could have released a string of albums as bonkers as the Lips have?
None. And that’s where part of the charm of Embryonic comes from; the smiling satisfaction of knowing that somewhere some suit at Warner Bros. had to approve of this thing. As in, had to listen to the whole thing, and go, “Yup, we’ll put this out on two discs, and clear these samples of a barely known mathematician” (by the name of Thorsten Wormann). It also helps that Embryonic is — at the very least — close to the best Flaming Lips album this decade (it’s neck and neck with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), but leagues weirder than anything the band has done since at least the early ‘90s (it’s on par with them being on 90210, but not as weird as stuff they did in the ‘80s).
After a trio of albums that took the band’s widescreen prog-rock focus to its bombastic (and sometimes pretty bad) conclusion (that would be 2006’s At War With the Mystics), the Lips are back to being a few weird dudes holed up in a room making bizzaro pop songs with little concern for singles, videos, or even if anyone is going to understand it while not flying high on a few tabs of acid. From the opening squiggles and shards of noise on “Convinced of the Hex” to the discordant anthem “Watching the Planets,” Flaming Lips have recommitted themselves to music over spectacle, after the latter part of that equation took over for the latter half of this decade.
At first spin, Embryonic feels like something of a new direction for the Lips, maybe allowing them some new ground to bury in confetti. But upon multiple listens, it becomes clear that Embryonic’s 18 tracks instead split the difference between the group’s last three albums. The monolithic grooves of War with the Mystics are all over “Silver Trembling Hands,” “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine,” “Your Bats” and album highlight “See The Leaves.” The hazy melodramatic ballads and experimentation of Yoshimi Battles and The Soft Bulletin are present in “Evil,” “If,” “I Can Be a Frog” and “The Impulse.” And while it’s tempting to laud Embryonic’s abrasiveness given the too easy accessibility of At War, it’s really just another one of the Lips’ “pop” albums, this time with messier, less friendly and way longer results. Which most Flaming Lips heads will probably welcome with wide-open arms.
A certain amount of reassurance in the power of the Flaming Lips comes with each of the band’s album releases, and this one is no different. That this group of freaky Oklahomans can stay on a major label for 20 years, releasing new albums that push the boundaries of their sound (and everyone else’s), all while remaining true to their original mission is not only surprising, but seems damn near impossible. There’s been no going broad for cheap success (like U2) for the Flaming Lips, no fading into a parody of themselves (like the Rolling Stones), and no truly awful record. In 2009, the Flaming Lips are still as vital as they were in 1999 and 1989.