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Flaming Lips 

At War with the Mystics (Warner Brothers)

Wayne Coyne promised a return to the guitar-grinding Flaming Lips of yore with At War With the Mystics, and he does deliver — kinda. Just like the Oklahoma freak-rockers' ADD stage show, there's more of everything here, with guitars being just another sliver of the whole gonzo pie: more studio trickery, more fuzzy atmosphere, more melodrama, more humor, more pathos, more politics. All of which, inevitably, leads to more inconsistency. And maybe more to love.

Nobody would make the mistake of calling 2003's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots a "focused" record. But by restraining himself thematically to matters of personal integrity — even while singing about evil space robots — Coyne gave that album a somewhat linear sense of storytelling. Mystics is more ambitious and more pointed in its purpose. Most of its twelve tracks are directed not at the listener but at the listener's perceived enemies: warmongers, politicians, nonbelievers, Gwen Stefani fans. They're the mystics referred to in the title, and standout tracks like "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" (an either-you-love-it-or-you-hate-it musical funhouse of looney-tunes funk) and its equally tweaky successor, "Free Radicals," taunt them directly. In between is breezy, sleepy '70s FM schmaltz-pop like "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" and "Vein of Stars," soothing, paranoid, and distant. These are the songs purists will point to when decrying the supposed watering-down and growing-up of the Lips' adolescent urges. And they're right — musically, "Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung" and tender album-closer "Goin' On" lean closer toward the pastoral psychedelica of early Pink Floyd than the Butthole Surfers' psychotic crunch. But consider this: Coyne just turned 45. Multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd quit heroin and got married. This is not the Flaming Lips of twenty years ago. For some, that's a sad loss — but for others, it's a change to cherish.

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More by Jonathan Zwickel

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September 9, 2020

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