Flaming Lips reinvigorated in “Oczy Mlody”

Photo courtesy of the Flaming Lips

The experimental rock group the Flaming Lips released their new album “Oczy Mlody” on Jan. 13, their first solo release since 2013.

When asked how the group decided on the name of the album, Wayne Coyne, the lead vocalist and songwriter for the band, explained that the phrase was chosen solely for its sound. Though “Oczy Mlody” is Polish for “eyes of the young,” Coyne insisted that the group did not even know the translation of the words at first. Whether chosen incidentally or intentionally, the name is a perfect fit for the new album.

In contrast to Flaming Lips’ previous albums, which are largely dark space operas dealing with complex and serious themes of love and loss, “Oczy Mlody” is a full thematic and stylistic embrace of youth culture. A further departure from their earlier work, the new album is not a rejection of the mainstream; instead, it fuses the mainstream with the alternative. In fact, the album feels more like the work of an emerging indie-pop group, not a band formed in 1983.

The titular opening track sets the tone of the album as a whole. The complex electronic instrumental reminds one of the simple, ultra-modern house tracks played in malls, but a level of complexity elevates it. While the songs may sound similar to background music, they contain many overlapping layers and such musical complexity that they refuse to fade into the background. This album is background music for the foreground.

Many of the songs feel like dance music, but they would be impossible to actually dance to. The songs themselves would simply be too distracting, and this duality is key to the style of “Oczy Mlody.” On the album, the Flaming Lips are unpretentious, unassuming and understated, yet each and every track strikes the listener with intense depth and complexity.

The third track, “There Should Be Unicorns,” offers an image of a magical and fantastic future, a nihilistic world full of unicorns, “motorcycle stunts that always crash” and in which no one needs to answer for their actions. The song is, perhaps, a child’s idea of adulthood: a beautiful world of freedom and lawlessness.

At the same time, however, the song is infused with adult references to sex and drugs and is permeated by expletives. If the song were written as a hypothetical, it would be a child’s grievances about growing up and finding a world that differs greatly from the one he expected. Coyne does not, however, write the song as a hypothetical. Therefore, he seems to continue to cling to childish hope for an ideal world.

Much of the album wrestles with this theme: Coyne seems to be trying to find a way to accommodate youthful naïveté and enthusiasm with an adult reality.

Coyne and his band cement this orientation of the album around youth and its integration with or replacement by adulthood in “How??,” a track which treats the classic rock ’n’ roll notion of everlasting youth with both reverence and irony.

In his version of Pete Townshend’s iconic line — “I hope I die before I get old” — Coyne asks, “Are you with us, or are you burnin’ out?” In the next line, however, Coyne juxtaposes this idea with a call to “kill your rock ’n’ roll … sound,” shifting to the role of the aging older generation.

“How??” is not a statement about the direction that Coyne and his group are taking but rather an expression of the frustration and confusion of the aging Peter Pan. Coyne sums this struggle up in his desperate cry, “I tried to tell you, but I don’t know how.” He repeats this line throughout the song, and the sentiment reverberates through the entire album.

Viewed through the lens of the conflict between an adult reality and a desire to embrace youth, “Oczy Mlody” appears to be influenced by the Flaming Lips’ recent collaboration with Miley Cyrus on her experimental album “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz.” On that album, Cyrus abandons her teen pop image and attempts to find a balance between her beloved youth culture and the musical maturity of the progressive rock movements of the past.

To accomplish this balance, Cyrus used the influence of the Flaming Lips to become more serious and experimental. In a reciprocal twist, the collaboration had the opposite effect on Wayne Coyne and his band. The group has discovered its youth again and, in the process, taken a new artistic approach.

Listening to the Flaming Lips’ album is not merely taking in a series of songs but rather experiencing the reinvigoration of an aging band in real time.

This constant musical innovation is what has made the Flaming Lips so well-respected, and “Oczy Mlody” is no exception to the group’s long tradition of excellence. The Flaming Lips have reinvented themselves again, and the album with which they have done it may well be the best of their career.