Flaming Lips – Dark Side of the Moon – If it’s the “death of music,” I’ll take it

Bias alert: I am a Flaming Lips fan, and ironically, I’ve never been to one of their signature-spectacle live performances, aside from the live footage I’ve seen on the InterWeb and via Bradley Beesley’s 2005 Lips documentary, Fearless Freaks (one of the best rockumentaries I’ve seen before and since). And let’s face it, Wayne Coyne, artistically, can make some rather eccentric, genre-bending, odd decisions, circa the tepid launch of At War With the Mystics (2006) and, later, Christmas on Mars (2008, a psychotropic 86-minute sci-fi headtrip concerning a cadre of galactic colonists settling on Mars that Coyne first conceived a year after the debut of the aughts, featuring a sonically irreverent score by The Lips’ multifaceted, indispensable sound-innovator, Steven Drozd—and, yes, um, I recall an aborted fetus and a vulva-headed marching band on full display in this film). In short, I have to confess that I can’t find myself consistently agreeing with The Lips’ unpredictable instincts.

However, what can’t be denied of Coyne’s everyman, down-to-earthy, terrestrial existence on this planet of ours is the raw passion inherent to every decision he and his coterie of openly freakish misfits have made. Because of this, there is always an earnestness and honesty to the artistic leaps of faith they make, notwithstanding the reaction of the anonymous masses in cyberspace and amidst the viscous crème de la crème of the critical elite. At this juncture, you (that being either an impersonal you) will always find your svelte narrator, in a kneejerk reaction, defending The Lips against curmudgeonly textual-and/or-verbalized assaults and chucked stones.

As an intermission, this briefly brings your humble narrator to Embryonic (might they have a fixation on embryos, fetuses, and vulvas?), the Lips’ bombastic 2009 double album release, the most daredevil, ungoverned and brazen orgasm of anti-insouciant, disestablishmentarian, atomic, dark, furious, tender, vignette-slaphappy, fragmented collection of tracks since 1997’s Zaireeka. Perhaps it was an audacious reaction to the tepidity they experienced (or even endured) during their work on the thematically piecemeal Mystics, and that album’s equally lukewarm reception amidst fans and critics. Embryonic isn’t any less dismembered or compartmental, but with it we witness a renaissance of their heart and joy for either freaking you the fuck out, or uplifting you into a stratosphere of helium-headed hope coupled to a pinch of existential resignation and cyberpunk melancholy.

In PasteMagazine.com’s interview with the Lips’ grizzled frontman, Coyne elaborates on Embryonic and the atypical darkness of this album vis-à-vis its more saccharine predecessors:

I don’t know if it’s pessimism. I try to be realistic. As much as anybody would say that we’re optimistic, I always say we’re not even optimistic. I think we’re realistic. “Realistic” meaning that, yeah, we’re aware of the pain and suffering, in the end, will defeat us. We can’t just over come that because we have a good attitude […] A lot of things in life, you change it just by your perception of what it is. But we’re not ever going to pretend that it’s all that way (Source: http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2010/01/flaming-lips-frontman-wayne-coyne-talks-dark-side.html)

This in turn ushers your bespectacled narrator to the raison d’être of this post: The Lips’ interpretation of Pink Floyd’s phenomenal album, Dark Side of the Moon, with their nephew’s band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs. Floyd-wise, you purists know what I’m talking about: you’ve smoked up to it, you’ve paired it with a synchronous viewing of The Wizard of Oz and wondered if “it” was actually working—you’ve even been tempted to buy a Pink Floyd T-shirt at Hot Topic, despite the fact that you’re in your 30s or 40s.

This is not a review, mind you, this is a brute opinion … a piece of commentary on some of the more cantankerous customer reviews I’ve seen trickling into iTunes, the App Store, online forums, etcetera. Some of this anonymous verbiage includes:

“I am sick to death of bands with or without musical ability of their own, taking someone else’s music and vomiting all over it […] Shame on this band,” and “To desecrate these songs the way the Flaming Lips have is just an atrocity!” and “Someone just go ahead and mark this the death of music. This is offensive. Why don’t you get together and desecrate the Mona Lisa or re-shoot the Godfather” and “It’s as if they sprayed vulgar graffiti all over the Pyramids of Giza!”

Here I am compelled to séance with the notoriously puckish specter of one of the more glaring champions of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements during WWI, the early 1920s’ Marcel Duchamp—if only to instill a sense of humility and ridiculousness into the creative act itself and the sanctity that we (including myself) often endow upon the works of great artists and their immortalized “offspring.”

Please only consider this one insignificant cybernaut’s opinion, but: There are only a handful of contemporary rock bands out there that have truly earned the right to do whatever the fuck they want, and one of them just so happens to be The Flaming Lips.  Wayne Coyne’s life (and his impenetrable work ethic), thus far, has an analgesic immunity to the cultural tumors (namely, the dreck of the critical proletariat-elite that populate all manner of user forums and review subsections) of our ongoing conservation between the contemporary artist and the consumer. 

Brass tax-wise, I ought to ask the hecklers and the critics cursing this interpretive album (or any album, for that matter) thusly: What have you done in your life (so far) that amounts or compares to the strides that the Lips have taken with pop music and live performance?

It’s a lot of hardscrabble work making music; it’s harder work making music that is listenable; and it’s downright insane to make music that changes how you perceive music in the first place. Pink Floyd has accomplished this … and sorry folks, the Lips have done this too.  Perhaps, the masses have yet to realize this—posthumous, God forbid—personally, I adamantly stand by the rhetoric of the operative question in the preceding paragraph.

This release is an interpretation of Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (DSoTMoon); yes, it’s not the mere by-the-numbers cover you’d see in a smoky downtown, claustrophobic dive bar by a local novelty band, and it isn’t meant to be. A direct cover would be boring. Why? Because we’ve already listened to DSoTMoon a myriad of times; and we’ll only continue to listen to its milestone-majesty a plethora more.

It’s easy to berate an artist behind a titanium wall of anonymity and the hardened grout of creative inertia; it’s much harder to participate in the creative act itself in the face of public scrutiny. My logic (if you can call it that) is akin to an e-mail that my younger sibling has written to me of recent: “It’s absurd to think that something so expressive as the art of music can only be defined in one light alone. It’s art and should be honored with the chance to be kept alive in different ways. In different colors and hues.”

Art will forever evade absolutism, as well as our obsessive attempts (both scholarly and urbane) to define good art and bad art. In 1917, Duchamp dared to call a urinal a work of art, and despite what the naysayers have said, it was. In art, I largely subscribe to the notion that nothing is sacred, and however disturbing that may be, it’s hard for me to bother with a rebuttal. For your unabashedly verbose narrator, it boils down to an excerpted “Coyne quote” taken from the above-cited PasteMagazine.com interview:

[ …] that’s most of everything we do. We’re intending to make it [a work of art], but we know we can’t really make it on purpose. I think all art and all music is really done the same way; I just don’t think most people realize it. They just want to tell you a bunch of bullshit about how creative they are.

Of course, with all this brand of logic in mind, nothing Coyne or I or anyone says is sacred, either.

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