Inspired by a desire to make a double album and record with greater freedom and less discipline and restraint, the Flaming Lips let their freak flag unfurl on Embryonic. One of the Lips’s trademarks has long been the way that they balance their riskiest, most ambitious impulses with a genuine mastery of pop songcraft. That balance has skewed a bit more toward the accessible over the last decade, with songs like “Do You Realize???” and “Fight Test” finding the band crafting some of their most robust, indelible pop hooks. Embryonic, then, sounds like an over-correction to that trend, pushing the Lips’s sound back into more experimental territory.
This is certainly an understandable position for the band to take, but the problem with Embryonic is that the songcraft simply isn’t there. Opener “Convinced of the Hex” eventually settles into a distorted take on a jam-band groove, with duel drum lines and a squelchy bass guitar providing a ramshackle structure that works with the song’s push-and-pull sexual dynamics. If it makes for a jarring first impression, “Hex” is ultimately one of the record’s more successful experiments. “Evil” drones on interminably without resolving into any kind of lyrical or sonic focus in a way that smacks of self-indulgence, while the digressions the band takes on “Your Bats” and the nearly epic-length “Powerless” will only find favor with the most dedicated of prog-rock aficionados.
Even when the band pulls back for one of their quirky love songs, it’s something of a disaster: The minor-key arrangement of “I Can Be a Frog” undercuts the song’s playfulness without any greater purpose, and the song pulls off the previously unthinkable act of making Karen O. unappealing, as the singer makes obnoxious animal noises and sound effects on cue and then breaks into schoolgirl giggles. Like so much of the record, it’s self-indulgent even for a band whose self-indulgent quirk has long been a critical component of their appeal.
Still, it’s impossible to write Embryonic off entirely. Beneath all of the noodling around on ProTools and the free-form rhythm tracks, there’s some genuine meat to the album, with a core group of songs that takes an astrological approach to human nature in a way that recalls the Lips’s most thematically rich work. While those ideas never fully cohere into any broader themes, they do give the album the through line that it so desperately needs. The Flaming Lips’s desire for creative freedom is admirable to a point, but Embryonic makes a strong case for the discipline and restraint they were working against.