Published Jul 17, 2019Even today, nearly 40 years after the band's inception, it remains hard to pin down what, exactly, makes a Flaming Lips record. The pastel colours of its sound? The loopy surprise of its lyrics? Or maybe the unmistakable voice of frontman (and figurehead) Wayne Coyne — so world-weary, so naïve. In any case, listen to just a few minutes of their fifteenth studio album King's Mouth: Music and Songs and you'd be hard-pressed to say that this album is anything other than pure, unalloyed, Lips (whatever that might mean).
Conceptually and musically, King's Mouth hews closest to the sorbet-sweet experimental pop of the band's 2002 LP Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Like Yoshimi, King's Mouth is a concept album of sorts, tethered together by the various misadventures of a fantastical protagonist. Here, the narrative centres around a giant king baby who sacrifices himself to save his subjects from an impending avalanche — a gesture that elicits such gratitude that the citizenry decide to dip his head in steel and place it on display, forever. (If this narrative doesn't already sound bizarre enough, imagine it being recounted, as it is, by the Clash's Mick Jones in several spoken word interludes.)
But despite the super-saturation that this elevator pitch might suggest, King's Mouth is a light album, one that — in its best moments — ties the fantasy of its central conceit to a studied sense of reality. On highlight "How Can a Head," for example, Coyne marvels at the way simple, physical things — head, eye, mouth — become repositories for rich networks of personal memory. Celestial in its thematic aspirations, but small and bodily in detail, it's a careful balancing act that ranks amongst the band's similarly magical career highlight "Do You Realize??"
Yet for each peak of awestruck bliss, there are just as many valleys, sheltering loose, unfocused tracks that clog up the total runtime. On the functionally titled "Giant Baby," the band's lyrics, typically incisive in their simplicity, instead fall into the awkward refrain of "You're the biggest baby." Through grasping towards a sense of childlike wonder, these moments end up feeling less precociously observant and more just literally infantile, only diluting otherwise stirring material.
It all has the effect of making King's Mouth something like a fancy, colourful cocktail — one that, upon taking a sip, you can tell has been slightly watered down. It's not exactly the thing you were after (a little more diffuse, a lot less heady), but, still, it is cold and sweet, and you are beginning to feel an image of the magic, or at least beauty, that might be out there, and so you finish it all with a smile. (Warner)