I can see where people are coming from: more and more, the Flaming Lips seem to be intent on becoming a novelty act. It was easy to ignore Wayne Coyne using a cannon-blaster of confetti, rolling on top of huge crowds in a bubble and donning balloon hands that shot lasers everywhere because everyone was high (at least I was) or because the euphoric explosion of “Do You Realize??” filled our heads. It was slightly harder to ignore At War With the Mystics, but even then, there were enjoyable songs in the overproduced mess. It was even harder to ignore the impregnable Embryonic, but there were enough people who found solace in the noise-drenched psychedelia (I know I did).
However, there comes a point where not getting what you want from a band that you’ve been invested in for so long crosses the threshold from tolerance and masochistic pleasure to intolerance. I’m no expert, but I assume that releasing a Valentine’s Day song titled “Two Blobs Fucking” that required 12 co-ordinated phones to play (which made the highly experimental project Zaireeka seem ordinary in comparison) might’ve been that point. If not that, then releasing songs that try to beat Bull of Heaven at their own game of longest-running joke might’ve been that point. If not that, then releasing songs encased in a gummy human skull might’ve been that point. If not that, then…
Certainly collecting the blood of the numerous features on your collaborative album for limited vinyl pressing might be that point. And ignoring Wayne Coyne apparent blood-philia (not to be confused with the bleeding disorder hemophilia; I just mean his fetish for blood), there was also the embarrassing twitter fight between Wayne Coyne and Erykah Badu that made it impossible to sympathize with either artist, either because Erykah Badu went from understanding to aggressive (“you can KiSS MY Glittery ASS”) or because Wayne Coyne went from apologetic to immature in his response. But what we’re really judging is the music, right? And that’s just where The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends succeeds. It’s true, it’s hard to think of any reason most of these artists are here at all, other than for the novelty effect (“KE$HA IS ON THIS?!”). That’s especially true since the Lips aren’t using a lot of them to their full potential. For example, the lovely falsetto of Bon Iver has been delegated to mere backing vocals, while the phoned-in vocals of Yoko Ono on “Do It!” that contain a total of two words (guess which words); it’s not like Wayne couldn’t have done these by himself or grabbed some random off the street.
Still though, all these criticisms make The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends sound like it wouldn’t be a worthwhile endeavor, and that would be far from the truth. The opening side of the album alone is worth the admission ticket. “2012” is a modern retelling of the Stooges’s 1969 (both released in their respective years), with the same riff, although the one here hits much harder, and the robotic voice “You must be upgraded” being incorporated into the whole thing. Ke$ha pulls it off, probably because I couldn’t name an artist that could deliver a line like “I want my ass to be jumping too” with as much conviction as she does. There is also the noteworthy pseudo-opera of the second part of the track before coming back to the original riff. Meanwhile, “Ashes in the Air” is a psychedelic ballad made with spacey sounds and drum rolls, and the Flaming Lips are one of the few bands that could get away with lyrics like “We’re both so fucked up / You’re fucked up in the good way / And I’m fucked up in the bad” and “We thought we could outrun them / But they had robot dogs.” Finally, the awfully-titled “Helping the Retarded to Find God” is a gorgeous acoustic ballad, the sort that you’d have expected more from the Lips circa 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, made complete with punctuating lasers, “You. Stood. There. With. Me.”
What follows is mostly a mixed bag. They’ve taken only the best tracks of the four EPs that preceded Heady Fwends: “Supermoon Made Me Want to Pee” is three minutes of constant climaxes, and, ignoring my previous criticisms, Yoko Ono genuinely sounds like she’s bouncing off the walls (especially her garbled “AHHHHH-H-H” at the 2:23 mark) to the Lips’ table-tennis like percussion on “Do It!” (it really earns its exclamation mark). The opening and closing minutes “I’m Working for NASA on Acid” throws an acoustic recording through a gallon of sludge, but it’s worth hearing for what happens in between those points (starting at the 2:53 mark, if you want to skip ahead), where that riff comes out of nowhere and they give us that Flaming Lips-ian heliumed-up countdown (“1-2-3-4!”) that we know and love (think “Race for the Prize” and “Do You Realize??”). Finally, “Is David Bowie Dying? tries to pummel listeners to death with its two-note bass – it would’ve been perfectly at home on Embryonic. There are some bad ones: I have no idea (and I don’t think Nick Cave or the Lips could tell you either) what’s supposed to be going on on “You Man? Human???”, while New Fumes-aided “Girl, You’re So Weird” doesn’t get exciting until the 1:17 mark, but even then, it doesn’t go anywhere and just patters back to the opening riff. Erykah Badu sounds lovely as always, but there’s no reason why their cover of “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” needed to be 10 minutes in length – you wish Wayne Coyne was less busy collecting blood and more time editing. Thankfully, the album closes on a positive note with Chris Martin-aided “I Don’t Want You to Die” nicely wrapping up the noisy proceedings – it sounds like a ballad and a brief interpolation of John Lennon’s “Imagine” recorded underwater.