The Essential Playlist: The Flaming Lips

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Photo by Lindsay Corry

This piece was originally published on the 4th of April 2014 by The 405. I’ve changed a couple of words here and there and corrected some errors so it reads better. I largely stand by what I wrote here, even if some of the writing definitely comes across as overly gushy when I read it now. I was nineteen, though, so whatever. If you’d like to see the playlist that accompanied this piece, you can check it out on Spotify.

As fun as list-making can be, reducing your favourite band to twenty songs and a few hundred words is fucking agonising. Perhaps more so when the band in question has been going for thirty-odd years and has a amassed a mostly excellent discography consisting of: fifteen albums, eighteen EPs, and countless other one-off songs and dumb experiments. God help whoever writes one these things about The Fall. Still, this large body of work itself represents a fundamental part of why I, and countless others, adore The Flaming Lips: they’re not afraid to experiment, to fuck up, to make themselves look daft. Because they are daft, they’re goofy and sweet and utterly sincere, and I cherish that so much. There’s no semblance of artifice with The Flaming Lips, no indication that their work is contrived or cynical or anything but 100% genuine. This candour makes the band easy to latch on to, it shudders through any wall of defence and speaks directly to the soul. It makes the highs in their music so euphoric, the lows so devastating, the emotions so resonant, and the joy so fucking ecstatic. The heart is the greatest amplifier, after all.

While The Flaming Lips’ sound has consistently evolved as they’ve grown older and as members have come and gone (meaning there are no two Flaming Lips albums that are entirely alike), their sincerity has always shone through: be it in the early psychedelic punk days in the 80s; the alt-rock period between the late 80s and mid 90s (and more or less coincided with them signing to Warner Bros., who were so impressed by the band nearly burning down a venue that they snapped them up immediately); the time they more-or-less abandoned their guitars following the departure of the wonderful Ronald Jones — who played guitar on the albums Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic — and developed a new identity built on effervescent Disney-sounding orchestrations and dense psychedelic melodies; their ascent to bona-fide pop-rock superstars status in the wake of Do You Realize??and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in the early 00s; and their current incarnation as psych-rock stalwarts/crazy people who release songs in actual human skulls. That relentless sincerity isn’t enough on its own, of course, but it imbues their already excellent songwriting and their penchant for experimentation, which has kept them relevant and invigorated for so long, with something more: that inexplicable fuzziness you get in your gut; that visceral feeling that you don’t want to intellectualise in fear of ruining it. That’s what draws me back to the band, why I always turn to them when I’m feeling down. Because if one of the purposes of art is to find form for missing feelings, then The Flaming Lips’ passion and honesty alone can vicariously feel on behalf of the entire planet.

I think that’s partly informed by the fact that they’ve always worked with this childish abandon, a wide-eyed, open-hearted glee that they can do absolutely anything they want: be it an album that’s supposed to be played on four CD players simultaneously (Zaireeka), a science-fiction film about a guy trying to organise Christmas on Mars (imaginatively titled Christmas on Mars), a twenty-four hour song (‘7 Skies H3’), and so on. Their modus-operandi seems to be“Hey, let’s do that thing because it’s cool!” it allows them to do things and create sounds that go beyond any normal reasoning. And in a music industry that rewards the po-faced, it’s always refreshing to have a band of that stature that isn’t afraid to make a song called ‘Two Blobs Fucking‘ because they felt like it. That’s not to reduce them to a mere novelty act; it’s just that in covering the full spectrum of emotions, as they have so well for three decades, they’ve simply never forgotten about joy. Indeed, that’s perhaps best represented by their old live show, with all the balloons and the giant hamster ball and the Wizard of Oz dancers and such. In that respect, The Flaming Lips are basically The Muppets of the music industry: a bunch of wonderful, wacky, flappy weirdos that are completely necessary in shaking up the monotony of life. Because fuck it, we’re all going to die one day, so let’s live a little while we inexorably slide into the abyss. That’s what The Flaming Lips are about. They’re obsessed with death and confront dark existential questions all the time, but only to the extent that they remind us that we need to enjoy life and other people and dumb things like giraffes or whatever ‘She Don’t Use Jelly is about. The universe is absurd, totally fucking mad, and we have to embrace that and have a good time. The Flaming Lips embody that, in their own triumphant, chaotic way, and I love them for it.

So, if you’re reading this because you haven’t given The Flaming Lips much of a chance before and feel daunted by their huge discography — hopefully this essential playlist serves as a decent introduction to their entire career, from their first album to the latest, last year’s utterly beguiling The Terror. And with any luck, you’ll fall in love with them, too.

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