1. There isn’t a Flaming Lips record with better song titles. Even outside of the obvious “Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World,” there’s “Kim’s Watermelon Gun” and “They Punctured My Yolk”; “Bad Days” gets subtitled “Aurally Excited Version!” “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles” is whatever, and indicative of the song titles of At War With the Mystics: potentially fun song titles that were taken a bit too seriously.
2. There isn’t a Flaming Lips record with better-sounding drums. Steven Drozd’s drumrolls are a bit one-note in how he employs them to push songs along (ie. back-to-back on “Guy Who Had a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World” and “When You Smile”), but they sound like they’re being played on upside-down garbage cans. Big, booming, larger than life – like the Lips usually think they are.
3. Someone else has already written the best description of this album, which I’m going to paste here and hope you read. “The record stands as the peak moment in a fantastic four-album run that began with 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance. It’s a sturdy wood-paneled shrine to the band’s teenage rec-room touchstones, channeling the shortwave frequencies of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the fuzz-toned boogie of The Slider, the rustic splendor of After the Gold Rush, the thundering thrust of Houses of the Holy, and a Revolver-like balance of kid-friendly frivolity and strobe-lit freakery.”
All of that, and my volatile relationship with this album – more than any other Flaming Lips record, it’s good, it’s solid, it’s good, it’s great – suggests that this one is a grower. It’s less tuneful than The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, less weird than Embryonic, less joyful than Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, to name the other four of their five best albums – and less immediate than any of those because of said reasons. I read once that “This Here Giraffe” was positioned as this album’s “She Don’t Use Jelly”; there was no way this much subtler song was going to win the same attention. But what a fucking symphony! Here is an unassuming song that encapsulates all of the spirits that Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman evoked. Underneath the album’s most direct vocal hooks (“This here giraffe!…lauuuuuuuughs!”), an electric guitar line sprinkling pixie dust (some seriously great guitar playing on this album, usually buried underneath everything else) and a bass-line that’s the album’s grooviest.
Almost every track offers up its pleasures: Wayne Coyne singing “Cats killing dogs, pigs eating rats” as he accelerates off Earth on “Psychiatric Exploration of the Fetus With Needles”; the curtain reveals the entire universe to a naïve Wayne Coyne wondering if space is real over an acoustic guitar on “Placebo Headwound”; “They Punctured My Folk” slowly unfolds to an attempt to turn the church into a rocket-ship by sheer power of voices alone (it’s a likeable melodic sway over military drums ‘til then). Elsewhere, the stacks ooze sludge as “Kim’s Watermelon Gun” begins before it turns into one of their most concert-ready tracks (I think I’d rather hear this than “Do You Realize??”), energy bursting at the seems as the lead guitar can’t stop bouncing off the walls; a lovely backing vocal (“La-la-la-la!”) hitting Wayne Coyne like a spotlight. (Do you think Kim Deal cried in happiness when she was bestowed the contraption? I’d like to think so.) And I cannot tell you how much joy it brings me to hear “Christmas at the Zoo”: Wayne Coyne attempting to free all the animals who decide to stay put (“The elephants, orangutans, all the birds and kangaroos all said / Thanks but no thanks man, but to be concerned is good”), while one guitar zaps and spurts and the other one plays a line that could have otherwise been befitting for a proper Christmas song.
4. But my favorite has long been “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”, an understated opener … and also their best opening song. Heady statement, I know, considering it competes against “Race for the Prize” and “Fight Test”; even “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and Ke$ha-aided “2012” were delights in their respective albums. No one wants to admit it, but Wayne Coyne wasn’t ever a good singer; he usually strains to hit high notes (“We were perplexed”), and he’s adopted the higher range for most of his career. But his raspy soul sounds perfect over the din of the film projector playing a home movie in the otherwise lonely theatre room: unfinished phrases like “Well, it took some time / Cause it’s a lot— / God, it’s a bunch—“ don’t need more to be said in his hands. Halfway through, the guitar plays the main melody clearly and loudly like an alien light/God beaming through the house and lifting up the saddened Coyne to better places (“And I’m sort of relieved / And I’m getting over it now”); church bells welcoming their newest subject or saint.