Much of the hype surrounding the Flaming Lips' long-in-the-works 12th album jumped on frontman Wayne Coyne's murmurs about "more guitars." The Oklahoma City veterans' last two albums, 1999's brilliant The Soft Bulletin and 2002's kinda brilliant Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, eschewed the band's tattered punk threads for heady, orchestrated prog. As a result, "more guitars" sounded something like a return to the Lips of old.
Of course it's not. As good as some of those old Lips albums were, notably 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, the band has come a long way from the noisy, acid-washed origins of parents' basements and nowhere bars. The trio of Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins now creates tight, precise albums without losing any of its Fearless Freaks iconoclasm. On At War with the Mystics, guitars frequently do burst further into the red than on recent albums. But that doesn't mean they're at the expense of those cerebral, atmospheric glitches we've grown accustomed to.
The guitars don't really bring the Lips back to earth, but the lyrics, at times, try their best. Coyne must have concluded that shit is indeed getting heavy, and many of his songs journey into that great pop music cliche of the past two years: fuck the Bush Administration! Album opener and lead single "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" riles it up straight out of the gate, asking "If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich, would you do it? With all your power, what would you do?" And to make sure we don't go home empty-handed, closer "Goin' On" urges its listeners not to sit on the sidelines for the next three years. Coyne's words aren't so powerful as to sedate the "politics, schmolitics" voice inside, but fortunately don't irritate enough to press the skip button.
The songwriting sometimes does, however. "Vein of Stars" and "Haven't Got a Clue," phone it in a wee bit. The latter, another politically-charged song ("Every time you state your case, the more I want to punch your face" and "As far as I can tell, you've created your own hell"), searches for but doesn't quite find the percussion-heavy vibe that Yoshimi's "Are You a Hypnotist??" mastered. The former's empty musings about heaven, hell, stars, what have you, indicate the Lips may be approaching the cosmic ceiling faster than expected.
But enough's enough! Did you really think the Flaming Lips would make an album even approaching bad? Shame on you. Some might take the lazy path and call At War a sidestep. That overlooks the addition-by-subtraction of "Free Radicals," the flowery explosion of "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" and the played-like-a-guitar bass line of the year in "Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung." That last comment actually overlooks the fact that the bass line in "Pompeii" is sorta kinda definitely stolen from Pink Floyd's "One of These Days," but that's OK! The Flaming Lips update it for the kids.
So a couple duds, more innovation, same incredible imagination -- nice little album. On top of that, War is Drozd's first album since quitting heroin. You try making a headphones record while kicking the horse, Mr. Flawless Expectations!