Since 1999's The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips have issued an album once every three or four years -- roughly once per presidential term, making At War with the Mystics the second album they've made during George W. Bush's presidency. While Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' themes of seizing the moment and accepting mortality could easily be read ...
Since 1999's The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips have issued an album once every three or four years -- roughly once per presidential term, making At War with the Mystics the second album they've made during George W. Bush's presidency. While Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' themes of seizing the moment and accepting mortality could easily be read as a reaction to 9/11, At War with the Mystics is a more overtly timely album for the mid-to-late 2000s, dealing with the motivation behind the war in Iraq and Bush's presidency. By grappling with heavy subjects like these, it could seem like the Flaming Lips are taking their role as one of America's most prominent and beloved alternative rock bands too seriously, but Mystics' light touch shows that they can still be important without being self-important. In fact, the album's most pointed tracks are the most playful. As they did on Yoshimi's "Fight Test," the Lips couch their aggression in bouncy melodies and playful production tricks. With its robotic doo wop vocals and strummy acoustic guitars, "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" -- which asks its listeners if they could do any better if they were handed all the power in the world -- sounds oddly like a Paul Simon song updated for the 21st (or maybe even 22nd) century. "Free Radicals," which sounds like Prince via Beck with a dash of Daft Punk, and "Haven't Got a Clue," which boasts the refrain "Every time you state your case, the more I want to punch your face," get their points across emphatically -- almost too emphatically, actually, for as catchy as these songs are, they don't really expand on their thoughts or sounds much. However, the middle section of At War with the Mystics is expansive and intimate at the same time, like many of the Flaming Lips' best moments have been. "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" and "Vein of Stars" play like updates of The Soft Bulletin's effortless, weightless beauty, and "The Sound of Failure" is a reminder that it's OK to be sad sometimes (while getting in digs at the teen pop platitudes of Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani) set to a gorgeous backdrop of soft rock flutes and guitars and twittering electronics. This stretch of songs plays almost like a suite, which ties right in with At War with the Mystics' prog rock leanings. Pink Floyd is a major influence on the entire album: "The Wizard Turns On..." is a spacey, late-night instrumental that could easily be synched to The Wizard of Oz, while "Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung" also taps into Floyd's elaborate, epic power. These trippy moments make At War with the Mystics the most psychedelic and least immediate album the Flaming Lips have done in a long, long time, and the way that Mystics bounces back and forth between its ethereal and zany moments gives it a disjointed, uneven feel that makes the album a shade less satisfying than either Yoshimi or Soft Bulletin. Still, as standout tracks like "Mr. Ambulance Driver" and "Goin' On" show, the band is still fighting the good fight and confronting the bad things in life with hope, optimism, and just the right amount of (magical) realism. ~ Heather Phares, Rovi
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