Last year was a relatively quiet one for the Flaming Lips. Sure, the Oklahoma vets take an average of four years or so between proper albums, but they’re rarely out of sight, whether they’re upholding their reputation as a festival clean-up worker’s worst nightmare, launching side projects, or just generating headlines over something outrageous Wayne Coyne has said/done. But, ironically, their most scattershot extracurricular activity to date—backing up Miley Cyrus on her teen pop-repudiating, Soundcloud-clogging Dead Petz project—has, in hindsight, proven to be a guiding light for this ever-exploratory band.
Over the past three years, Cyrus has gone from being Coyne’s instant Instagram BFF to becoming his go-to girl with kaleidoscope eyes to serving as the Lips’ muse—the potty-mouthed, pansexual Nico to their expanding plastic inflatable. It’s a friends-with-mutual-benefits relationship: Cyrus uses the Lips as a wrecking ball to her past, while the Lips use her a conduit to relive theirs.
Cyrus only appears on one song on the Lips’ new album, but the record wouldn’t sound the way it does without her presence in their lives. Oczy Mlody is a Polish phrase that translates to “eyes of the young,” and, here, the Lips strap them on like a VR headset. After spending much of 2013’s The Terror in a disorienting haze and ruminating on loss, lust, and impending apocalypse, on Oczy Mlody, Coyne reconnects with his childlike sense of wonder, populating its lyrical universe with unicorns, demon-eyed frogs, and wizards (not to mention enough f-bombs to challenge Cyrus in a swear-jar contest). And joining Cyrus’ squad shaped the album’s sonic direction as well: After sharing the console with Mike WiLL Made-It on Dead Petz and becoming party pals with A$AP Rocky, Coyne and co. have adapted their low-end theories to the Lips’ future-shocked psych-pop.
But if Oczy Mlody lacks The Terror’s weighty themes, it retains its claustrophobic, science-lab atmosphere, yielding songs as dense, tangled, and intricately structured as the gear set-up likely required to produce them. The Lips haven’t functioned as a straight-up rock band for two decades now, but never have they felt more like a pure studio entity—this is their first album to barely feature any (perceptible) drums, leaning instead on a wobbly rhythmic foundation of tinny programmed beats, bass-frequency throbs, and finger-snapping hooks. But while Oczy Mlody finds the Lips still eager to stretch the parameters of their aesthetic 30-plus years into the game, this time, it leaves them sounding a little distended and shapeless.
As harebrained as some of the Lips’ sideline experiments can seem, all those existentialist sci-fi-flick soundtracks, six-hour jams, and kooky karaoke exercises are important whiteboard workshop exercises for ideas that eventually get refined into holistic, conceptually focussed albums like The Terror and its predecessor, Embryonic. By comparison, Oczy Mlody feels more, well, embryonic. If the Lips’ 2009 opus introduced this current iteration of the band with a thundering Soft Bulletin-sized statement, and The Terror was its more subdued Yoshimi–scaled counterpoint, then Oczy Mlody is the At War With the Mystics moment, where the band sounds like it’s being pulled into too many directions at once, and struggling to reconcile their crowd-pleasing and contrarian tendencies.
Oczy Mlody’s fairy-tale fantasias are hardly unchartered terrain for a band that found its greatest success making a quasi-concept album about karate battles with robots; the difference here is that the whimsy is delivered in stern, serious tones, as if reciting a children’s storybook as docudrama. But just when you’re willing to overlook the goofy lyrics of a song like “There Should Be Unicorns” (“There should be day-glo strippers/Ones from the Amazon!”) and surrender to its tense, twitchy electro groove, the hypnotic spell is broken by a silly spoken-word intrusion from comedian Reggie Watts where he ruminates on horn-headed horses like Isaac Hayes doing pillow talk. The song finds a superior counterpart in “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill,” another tale of an epic quest for mythical creatures—set to an intensifying techno-powered thrust. But in lieu of a dramatic finale, it simply dissolves into the chintzy, chipmunked synth pop of “Do Glowy.” (Sample lyric: “Glowy, glowy, go/Let’s get together, yeah/Glow, glow, glow, glow.”)
These pendulum shifts—from frustrating to fascinating and back again—play out within the songs themselves. While the compelling near-instrumental “Nigdy Nie (Never No)” navigates a linear path from cosmic avant-R&B reverie to subwoofered robo-funk, dead-weight tracks like “Galaxy I Sink” and “Listening to the Frogs With Demon Eyes” force you to wade through meandering tracts of sputtering drum machines and free-floating guitar jangle to reach their brief, sky-clearing moments of radiance. Even a pretty reprieve like “Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)”—which repurposes a melody previously heard on Cyrus’ “The Floyd Song (Sunrise)”—isn’t immune to the album’s impulsive tendencies, with each plaintive verse answered by a momentum-stalling choral flourish that feels like a placeholder for a proper chorus. (The album boasts a better ballad in “The Castle,” a bittersweet, trip-hoppy serenade that would sound right at home on the back half of Yoshimi.)
Where The Terror appended its sullen song cycle with an ebullient bonus track (“The Sun Blows Up”), Oczy Mlody’s unlikely closer—the Coyne/Cyrus duet “We a Famly”—is presented as part of the official tracklist. But given the scatterbrained nature of all that precedes it, the song’s appearance is both moot and highly welcome. “We a Famly” reportedly dates back to the Dead Petz sessions, and it differs from the rest of Oczy Mlody in every possible way, from its traditional rock-anthem structure, to its real-world references to Wichita, to the presence of a joyous, arm-swaying chorus on a record that otherwise does its best to avoid them. Certainly, “We a Famly” will give amorous Lips fans something else to slow-dance to at their weddings besides “Do You Realize??” But in these divisive times, the song also functions as a more pointed statement of solidarity—for America at large, or, at the very least, among two generations of Oklahoma freaks who prove the president-elect doesn’t have a monopoly on watersports-related headlines in 2017.