Oczy Mlody is technically the follow-up to The Flaming Lips’ widely underrated 2013 album, The Terror, but so much has happened between the records that it’s hard to think of it that way. The Terror was such a profoundly personal record, made in the wake up singer Wayne Coyne’s separation from his longtime partner and Steven Drozd’s relapse into drug use, that it was more of a spiritual successor to the emotional weight of classic The Soft Bulletin, even if it didn’t receive the same acclaim. Anyone who saw the Lips supporting The Terror witnessed the band embracing their darkness, with all of the technicolor confetti of previous tours replaced by a dark paranoia that was so vivid it was contagious.
What followed was a particularly weird period for the band. There was the headdress incident in which an issue of cultural appropriation saw one Lips member getting fired and Coyne on the ropes from facing off against detractors. Rainbows started making their way back into Lips performances, cover song albums continued, and the band found an unlikely partnership through mutual admiration with Miley Cyrus. Without original tunes, it was hard to know where the band’s head was at, happy to just be along for the ride as Cyrus incorporated their laughing-gas psychedelia into her own vision.
All this considered, the tone of Oczy Mlody shouldn’t be a surprise. Save for a few moments, it’s generally slow and somber. Sure, the imagery is some of their most blacklight poster-inspired to date (there are castles and wizards and unicorns and frogs and outer space, and that’s just in the song titles), but even the most druggy reference isn’t without a touch of sadness, a party lingering on too long as the morning starts to break. It’s very much an album that knows its identity, even opening with a hand-holding instrumental to shift listeners into the right frame of mind.
It’s hard to place Oczy Mlody into a direct political context, as the record was finished before the election results, but the grim Lips seem ever more at home in this climate. The collection opens with the lyrics “White-trash rednecks earthworms eat the ground, legalize it – every drug right now/ Are you with us? Are you burning out?” before leading to a simple refrain of “How?” In fact, that’s the name of the song that could easily sit as a summation of life in the Trump age. Whereas on The Terror, the band’s internal struggles explained the muting of colors, now it’s hard to fault anyone in America for feeling the same way.
That isn’t to say that the album is without hope. Drozd’s vision on the instrumental compositions is remarkable in its focus, often taming chaos in beautiful, fragile moments. He’s long been the grounding force for Coyne antics, and the way their two planets orbit each other hasn’t failed to impress for going on 30 years. On Oczy Mlody, he makes refrains like “Have you ever seen someone die” on “Listening to the Frogs” find a sort of ambiguity, not landing as starkly as those words ought to. Likewise, on single “The Castle”, there’s a mirroring of the track’s fantasy imagery with themes of impermanence, where the listener is just as much being told what to feel as they are being shown.
And then there’s “We a Family”, the album’s much needed parting of the clouds in its last moments. It’s not an accident that Cyrus shows up to duet with Coyne to sing the record’s uplifting conclusion about togetherness. It’s with Cyrus that the band has seemed most joyous over the last few years, and it’s hard to say whether exuberance will ever return to the center of a Flaming Lips album. As it is, Oczy Mlody is an appropriate album for January 2017, with art representing the culture that has bred it. The fact that we’re all in this together is only a small solace.
Essential Tracks: “How?”, “The Castle”, and “We a Family”