To hear Wayne Coyne tell it, The Flaming Lips' “The Terror” is to modern experimental pop what Edvard Munch's “The Scream” was to early 20th century expressionist painting — a disturbing, distorted portrait of dread itself, drawn in chillingly beautiful words and music rather than oil, tempera and pastel.
The music from the Oklahoma City-based psych-rock band's 16th studio album (counting the “Christmas on Mars” soundtrack, their cover of Pink Floyd's “The Dark Side of the Moon” and their “Heady Fwends” compilation) is certainly in sharp contrast to last year's fun-loving lunacy of gummy-packaged duet larks and marathon tunes such as the 24-hour-long “7 Skies H3.”
“It's kind of how humans work,” Coyne said in a recent phone interview. “You're immersed in this one thing and sometimes it's the complete opposite of what you really want to do. You know, it's like we're talking about Oklahoma weather. We're in the middle of winter and all we wanna (bleeping) do is be in the summer. Of course, when it's the middle of (bleeping) summer you wanna be in the winter, you know?”
“The Terror,” musically speaking, seems to be in the middle of Coyne's winter of discontent. No uplifting anthems about life and death like “Do You Realize??” or blissfully inspired rockers like “Race for the Prize.”
“Look ... The Sun is Rising” is the deceptively bright-sounding title of the album's opening track, but the song carries a lyrical message that “Love is always something / Something you should fear / When you really listen / Fear is all you hear,” sung by a melancholy Coyne over a throbbing sci-fi accompaniment of eerie telegraphic keyboards, scratchy rhythm guitar, feedback and driving drums.
This segues into “Be Free, a Way,” continuing on a spacey stream of electronic pulses and fever-dreamy effects as Coyne's high, breathy voice asks “Did god make pain / So we can know / the high that nothing is? / The sun shines down / But we're still cold / Its light is not a light that shines. / Is love a god / That we control / To try to trust / The pain.”
And that's just for starters. Instrumentally and melodically, “Try to Explain” is undeniably beautiful, sounding like music from a cathedral drifting in deep space, while the singer implores a lover to “Try to explain why you've changed / I don't think I understand / Try to explain why you're leaving / I don't think I understand.”
Then sadness gives way to anger boiling to the surface on “You Lust,” with its drifting and moody spirals of multishaded keyboard loops, with Coyne seething, “You've got a lot of nerve / A lot of nerve to f - - - with me / ... 'Cause you know you're just like me / You lust / ... Lust to succeed.”
Coyne is well aware that some people will interpret these songs as his deeply personal expressions of despair and anger over the breakup of his long-standing romantic relationship and marriage to Michelle Martin-Coyne.
“Well, I think they will because there's songs on there that hinted that, and I wouldn't say that they're wrong because everything comes from an idea of expression,” Coyne said. “And even though I'm not really doing that, the way that Michelle and I are, it's not that typical way. I mean people will think whatever they want to think and that's fine with me.
“I don't want them to think anything that's gonna wrongly paint the way Michelle's life is. But yeah, I think they'll do that, yeah. But I think it's inevitable that the more you know about my life, the more you're going to see it in our art and our music.”
No matter how people interpret or react to this brave new experiment in musical catharsis, Coyne is comfortable in the knowledge that he's remained true to himself as a “fearless freak” of an artist, which is what true-blue fans of the Flaming Lips have come to expect.
“I don't want people to get the wrong impression, that we've suddenly turned into these (bleeping) bleak old men who no longer believe that the sun shines down on us. We do,” Coyne said. “To us, there's nothing wrong with being aware of this unstoppable pain and that life is a struggle sometimes.
“I think it'll please the fans that believe in us the most, the fans that really, really will always be there with us, that don't want us to make the same record over. They want us to go into outer space and come back with something that we've never heard before. They want us to experiment. And they would be the first ones to tell us, ‘Don't worry about failing,' you know? That's what I learned when we went to make ‘Zaireeka' and ‘The Soft Bulletin.'
“And that's what changed me. What changed me was them saying, ‘You know, Wayne, you should do your thing and don't be afraid, because that's what we want from you. We don't want you being saved, and we don't want you worrying about how this is gonna be marketed, we want you to go into the heart, the center-eye demon in your mind and confront that.'
“And I've tried to do that. I'm not always as determined as I think I should be, but I try to do that and not think about, ‘Is this gonna please anybody.'”