For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series.
“Love in our life is just too valuable/ Oh, to feel for even for a second without it.”
-From “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” on The Soft Bulletin (1999)
“We want, or wanted, to believe that without love we would disappear, that love, somehow, would save us that, yeah, if we have love, give love and know love, we are truly alive and if there is no love, there would be no life. The Terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on… we just go on… there is no mercy killing.”
-Wayne Coyne on the release of the 2013 album The Terror
I wasn’t sure what to think of The Flaming Lips in the ‘90s. Like most, I had heard and loved their radio hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” but it wasn’t until much later in the mid-Aughts, when I sat down to watch their documentary Fearless Freaks, that I knew there was more to the picture than just this early ‘90s curiosity. I just wasn’t ready for them yet.
Fearless Freaks led me to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Sad music has always been my jam, but Yoshimi had an optimism that felt ambitious without seeming reckless. Coyne’s voice is that of a child humbled before the vastness of the universe. There’s bad news, sure, “everyone you know/ some day/ will die.” But Yoshimi only gives us these staggering white-light-truths to refract them, to expand them out into their many shades where they lose their cold grip. The narrator, like us, is no hero. But he invites us to stand with him in the shadow of the hero’s spectacle, a toast to letting go of ego, from a glass half-full.
Dizzy with the Kool-Aid, I took in The Soft Bulletin, too. Here, Coyne had already perfected the narrative voice of earnest uplift that leads directly to Yoshimi’s blissed-out heights. On Bulletin, you’ll find tales like “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” or “Waiting for Superman,” odes to the strength of cooperation and the virtues of patience. If, like me, you were raised on public television, this was a booster shot you could use in the Bush era. The Flaming Lips were like the psychology of Fred Rogers and the psychedelia of the Muppets rolled into one, and speaking directly to some will-to-innocence.
It’s on Soft Bulletin’s Track “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” that Coyne drops what is for me the album’s core lyric, quoted above. It’s a pervasive idea, and one that has been circling my brain ever since. To what lengths will we go to feel love? What hallucinations will we accept? What hardships will we endure? Just what will we tell ourselves, to assure ourselves, that the whole of the universe isn’t indifferent to our struggles? And, if it’s a lie, is it a necessary lie?
The Flaming Lips are modern hippies. Ok, but their optimism doesn’t feel cheap. There’s an important difference between “All You Need is Love” and “Hey, I think we might be psychologically dependent upon love.” Coyne is exploring the dimensions of this dependency, not simply prescribing joy. These albums have stuck with me, but I lost track with The Flaming Lips after Yoshimi. I couldn’t get a foothold in their newer efforts, or this was the case until 2013’s The Terror.
But life without death is just impossible/ To realize something is ending within us.
This is the follow up lyric on “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” It’s the other half of the Coyne-coin, the yin to the other lyric’s yang. On Soft Bulletin, it’s the necessary nod to death that confirms life. But The Terror is an album without such confirmations.
It’s not apathetic. It isn’t numb. It’s another album about love. I haven’t actually done the counting, but if you were to count the instances of the word “love” among the lyrics, I’m sure they would rival a similar count on either Yoshimi or Bulletin. But if it’s just as focused on the concept of love, it’s a view from the far side.
Context is everything here. If this were another band on another album, I’d not care quite so much. My other minor-key psych-rock favorite from the Teens, Tame Impala’s Currents, is another work of heart-broken genius, but it doesn’t pack the same punch. I’ve had time to internalize Coyne’s forlorn but hopeful narrative voice. And, I can feel the ache of its crestfallen counterpart on The Terror, a work that expands The Flaming Lips’ survey of a subject they’ve committed a great deal of their work to. It begins to feel like the inevitable darkness that makes their lighter side possible, a dark end to an informal trilogy.
But all this talk about lyrics belies the fact that my entry into The Terror was almost entirely independent of the lyrical content. Instead it’s The Terror’s unique mix of anxious and chilled moods that drew me in, the way it feels at the same time steady-handed and unsettled. The expansive reverberating space and resigned cool of Coyne’s somber vocal delivery is a calming shroud over much of the album. Beneath it, synthesizers and abrasive guitars drone and stab in alternating states of panic. It’s a space horror vibe that is equal parts Carpenter and Kubrick with the gothic conceit that it takes place in the narrator’s (Coyne’s) mind. It’s the sound of coming apart beneath the space-helmet-mask.
Coyne maintains his humbled character on many of the tracks here, but the cracks eventually show. “You’ve got a lot of nerves/ A lot of nerves to fuck with me” on the albums sprawling centerpiece “You Lust.” It’s oddly endearing, to see the human under there, to see the break, the fear, the anger, the ego, the terror.
It may not be their grandest spectacle, but The Terror is the most cohesive and hypnotic musical statement that The Flaming Lips have thus far managed.
It’s worth noting, in post-script, that The Terror follows Wayne’s separation from his partner of 25 years Michelle Martin-Coyne. | Mike McCubbins