After listening to Embryonic, many questions spring to mind. Are The Flaming Lips trying to alienate fans who adored The Soft Bulletin’s heavenly psych-pop? Is the album an elaborate subversion of the major-label system, a way to force Warner Bros. to release something bizarre simply because one of its biggest bands wants it to? Or is Embryonic the Oklahoma City freak-rockers way of playing a giant joke on everyone?
The answers are just as murky. Embryonic is an amorphous, abstract collection of music. Songs don’t progress as much as lurch forward, propelled by absentminded chords, off-key singing and shambling rhythms.
“I Can Be a Frog” features a childish-sounding Karen O imitating animals in response to vocalist Wayne Coyne ticking off their names—thereby making it an irritating version of The B-52’s “Rock Lobster.” Stoner riffs drowning in fuzz and distortion can’t maintain their sludgy power on the MGMT-featuring trudge “Worm Mountain.” And the seven-minute “Powerless” resembles a drunken, teenage noise band fumbling through its first show, courtesy of meandering guitars, muddy vocals and haphazard sound effects and keyboards.
A few moments of beauty do emerge. Chattering drums and pixie-dust synths decorate the post-punk/glam-rock tango “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine.” “Silver Trembling Hands” is a Krautrock-meets-psych-rock stampede. And “Evil” is strangely touching: Repeating ’80s sci-fi synth notes process like a somber funeral march, as Coyne, sounding almost translucent, sighs, “I wish I could go back in time,” while belching, crackling sounds whisper texture into the mix.
All of which leads to the most important question about Embryonic: Is its weirdness good? And that’s where things get tricky. Texture-wise, it’s no stranger than the Lips’ late-’80s/early ’90s output. But those albums had cohesive internal logic and warped-pop sensibilities that made their weirdness work. Embryonic feels willfully obscure, an album full of cluttered noise and sounds thrown together with little regard for, well, anything. Twenty years ago, nobody knew the Lips could create masterpieces like The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Now that the band’s lucidity isn’t a secret, however, Embryonic’s experimental self-indulgence is an insult.