The Lowdown: The Flaming Lips have written a concept album about a hero who takes it upon himself to valiantly fight against an oncoming threat to his city, thus becoming a beloved champion. It’s an album racked with grief and admiration, trying to come to terms with grand ideas about life and death. This isn’t referring to their 2002 album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, to which all of this applies, but King’s Mouth: Music and Songs, their Mick Jones-narrated 15th studio album, which was released in limited quantity on Record Store Day before a wider release this July. The album tells the tale of a benevolent, giant king who sacrifices his life to protect his city against a coming avalanche, and the citizens honor his memory by removing his head, dipping it in steel, and placing it on display. Like they did on Yoshimi, the band encroaches on meditations about death, this time with a greater focus on how we are remembered and the legacy we leave behind.
The past decade has been particularly interesting in terms of assessing the legacy of Wayne Coyne and his band. It started with collaboration, as the band worked with everyone from Phantogram and Neon Indian to Chris Martin and Yoko Ono on a series of EPs, the group effort Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, and multiple full-length covers of albums by The Beatles, King Crimson, and The Stone Roses. This all led to a years-long friendship and creative relationship with Miley Cyrus, backing her second dramatic musical reinvention, culminating in Coyne and Steven Drozd co-writing and producing half the songs on Cyrus’ 2015 album, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Through this time, Coyne was mired in a series of minor scandals and headlines, whether it was getting caught up in a cultural appropriation debate or feuding with Erykah Badu about a song and music video they made together. As the band grew in stature through the people they worked with, they recorded the oppressively bleak and occasionally gorgeous album The Terror in 2013 and the more esoteric, plodding Oczy Mlody in 2017.
Now, things have begun to settle, as Coyne married longtime girlfriend Katy Weaver, and the pair are expecting their first child together. With that in mind, though it was recorded before these most recent life developments, King’s Mouth stands as a return to form for the band, an examination of the relationships between parents and children, sacrifice, and memory, all set to the backdrop of a fantastical tale of a magical king who contains the entirety of the cosmos in his oversized head.
The Good: Ever since 2009’s Embryonic, The Flaming Lips have descended into creating more abstract psychedelia, swirling and progressively hazier with each release. On King’s Mouth, they return to the mid-2000s with a gentler, more fantastical collection of songs full of bright melodies and heartfelt lyrics, reminiscent of Yoshimi in more ways than one. Hearing Coyne sing clearly over acoustic strumming on “The Sparrow” feels like a warm reminder of the childlike wonder they conjured on earlier releases, a feeling they manage to capture at times throughout.
Singing an Auto-Tuned tragic lament about the death of the king over fingerpicked acoustic guitar on “All for the Life of the City”, Coyne taps into an ache as real as anything on The Terror but made more plain. When the album reaches its climax on the heart-wrenching “Mouth of the King”, Coyne sings from the point of view of the deceased protagonist, singing: “Although I have died/ I will always exist… Every time that you smile/ And every time you’re kind/ I’m there in your mouth/ And I’m there in your mind.” Though it fits in the story, it stands on its own as a lovely farewell for anyone going through loss, tapping into a universal sentiment the band used to be able to knock out in their sleep.
The Bad: Unlike Yoshimi, no one can say that the band didn’t commit to the concept for the entire record, as each song tells a chapter in the tale of the king, with Mick Jones spelling things out explicitly throughout. While it makes for moments of transcendence, it also limits what they’re able to capture, as every song is grounded in the strange tale. A song like “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot”, centering around the villagers who cut off the head of the fallen king in order to parade it through the streets before preserving it, is a bizarre mix of jubilation and tragedy set to a grooving funk bassline that never really nails the right tone. This leads off a three-song suite on side two that gets mired down in self-indulgence. Further, Coyne’s tendencies to get overly sentimental emerge on songs like “Giant Baby”, where lines like “it made me understand that life sometimes is sad” don’t quite reach the poignancy of a “Do You Realize?” or “Waiting for Superman”.
The Verdict: For those who love the aughts’ Lips catalog, but were thrown off by the abstract experimentation of the last few records, King’s Mouth should be a welcome return to form. It does so without sacrificing any of the band’s trademark eccentricity, with an accompanying art installation of the giant head of a king, mouth wide open, frozen in place. By toying the line, the album blends together both sides of the band’s inclinations and works well in spurts, even if it rarely approaches the heights of Yoshimi or The Soft Bulletin. After a decade of the band going off in all kinds of directions and risking becoming a parody of themselves, it’s a comfort to have them return back to basics for a moment.
Essential Tracks: “The Sparrow”, “All for the Life of the City”, and “Mouth of a King”
Buy: Check out more Flaming Lips vinyl here.