The Flaming Lips are a curious beast and their latest offering, 14th studio album Oczy Mlody, is no exception. Named after a phrase found in an old Polish paperback that frontman Wayne Coyne discovered in a second hand bookshop, the album follows a loose concept that is embraced in the icy, primarily electronic, sound palette. Work on the album started with the title track, a dreamy, sleepy instrumental that Wayne was never quite able to fix lyrics to. 'Oczy Mlody' roughly translates as 'eyes of the young', but it is also the misheard, ill pronounced interpretations of the phrase which inspired the band down this path. With 'Oczy' conjuring up Oxycodone, a pharmaceutical pain-killing opioid, often used as a heroin substitute, and 'Mlody' representing the mournful musical melodies which the band have become famous for.
In their press release for the album Wayne Coyne tells us that he feels the sound of the record lies somewhere between Syd Barrett and A$AP Rocky. It's the sort of combination of references that sounds like it has been cooked up to infuriate and baffle. As if Wayne has pulled two disparate artists out of a hat merely to suggest how broad a scope the music embraces. On closer inspection it seems to be a stunningly accurate description of the sound the band have produced. The psychedelic whimsy of the Pink Floyd founding member married to the icy synthetic sounds of minimalist hip-hop. An odd paring that makes for strangely compelling listening.
On my first listen through I have to admit I found the combination a little irritating, and certainly alienating from what I am used to as a listener. Coyne touched upon this too in the press release – noting their would be little crossover between A$AP Rocky fans and the sort of people who embrace Syd Barrett's strange world. However, from my second listen onwards, armed with a little more knowledge of the concept underpinning the record, I felt like it began to reveal itself to me, unfolding layers I had not spotted within the subtle minimalism of the arrangements. Oczy Mlody is reimagined as a wonder-drug which people use to treat all manner of maladies and it works by putting people to sleep. As Coyne puts it, “So if you want to lose weight.. Ping!! You are put to sleep for three months and you wake up thin.. If you are addicted to drugs.. Ping!! You sleep yourself out of withdrawals and cravings and wake up sober.”
But the drug is being used recreationally by the super-rich in gated communities, for in their sleep it sends people back into childhood memories and fantasies filled with unicorns, frogs and spiders! That makes it sound like it’s all going to be utterly bonkers and nonsensical but what is striking is how seeped in darkness and melancholy the album is – which seems to me to be a true representation of a drugs scene. For behind every person who ever wanted to lose themselves in psychedelics there tends to be the story of what they are trying to escape from. Oczy Mlody is a very emotional album, for all its synthetics, as it explores the sadness unveiled by explorations into this strange drug. I’m the sort of person who finds Bon Iver’s use of auto-tune-based vocal effects a bit of a barrier to accessing the emotional core of his music but, weirdly, these stories of fairies and wizards seem to resonate very deeply in spite, or perhaps, because of their use of childlike imagery. Coyne’s voice helps to bring this home too, it’s very fragile and delicate. So slight it often makes the pitch-correction software work in over time to figure out where he is and where he ought to be, causing more fragmentary glitches and digital artefacts to distort the vocal – making him often sound vulnerable and far-away.
As the fictional drug ‘Oczy Mlody’ sends people to sleep for three months it’s no surprise the album starts off at a slow pace. Although it remains minimal throughout, mostly stark electronic beats, rumbling synth bass and crystaline pads, it does begin to pick up from around the mid-point. ‘How??’ is an early highlight, with epic anthemic melodies that could be overlooked when you’re used to big acoustic drums steering the dynamics. There’s an ascending melody and distorted vocal line that could sound perfectly at home on a Sigur Ros record. ‘There Should Be Unicorns’ is another early gem, utilising musician/comedian Reggie Watts to great effect at the end by re-calling Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. The lyrics throughout list requirements for an insane party, with Coyne’s delivery being so ethereal it’s almost intangible. The track really comes into its own when Watts, aping Scott-Heron’s delivery in a dead-pan voice-over style, takes the track home, talking about the right sort of unicorns, keeping the sun almost-setting for three hours, and giving any police who turn up to stop the party “so much money that they can retire from their shitty, violent jobs and live the greatest life they've ever lived”!
‘One Night While Hunting For Faeries and Witches and Wizards To Kill’ is a long, slow-burning track, but it seems to be the point where things start to build up from the slumber that opens the album. The tension slowly rises as subtle layers work their way in, with synths and guitars and a heavily processed harp sound punctuating the space. It never quite boils over, but there’s a momentum shift which leads us towards the end of the album. ‘The Castle’, released as a single, sounds so much fuller and more realised in the context of the album than it did when I first listened to it. It’s got that strong sad melody, Coyne’s vulnerable vocal delivery and pretty psychedelics, notably a glitchy arpeggio line that lend it a magical other-worldly air. It’s classic Flaming Lips, in spite of the new sounds they’ve embraced, you can hear this slotting nicely into their cannon of ‘hits’.
Miley Cyrus has become an oddly unexpected Flaming Lips associate – she collaborated with the band on their full-album cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Flaming Lips version is titled With A Little Help From My Fwends and is part of a series of collaborative albums the band have made). From the looks of things they became fast friends, with The Flaming Lips backing Miley on her last album and on tour. She appears on the album closer ‘We A Famly’ with a slurred vocal delivery that’s about as far away from the Disney pop-starlet’s origins as you could get. It’s not going to be news to anyone that Miley spent the last few years courting controversy and making every effort to do the unexpected, with frequently cringe-worthy results. It’s strange then that her work with The Flaming Lips seems so natural. I’m pretty sure the reports today, that Miley sends Wayne selfies of herself peeing, is just a bit of click-bait fodder for the press – a cynical slice of scandal conveniently dropped on the album release day. But you get the sense that musically The Flaming Lips’ childish whimsy, with serious emotions, hits the perfect note for the former child-star.
Oczy Mlody is unlikely to be a huge record to be honest, it takes a little bit of effort to get into at first, it deliberately mixes styles and ideas together because they make odd bedfellows but, at the same time it’s a joy and a triumph, certain to be considered a highlight in what’s becoming quite a massive discography. It’s the sort of album where it helps to have some quiet and solitude to immerse yourself but, I imagine, once you’ve fallen for it, it’s the sort of album you could slap on a pair of headphones on the bus and be transported to a far-away land full of magical wonder and icy melancholy.