Sonic extremists, the Flamings Lips have spent three decades mining the depths of noise rock, bubbling electronica, and heady psychedelia. They’re just as thematically extreme, shifting from the fantastical euphoria of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots to the dystopian fever dreams of their last two releases, most notably 2013’s claustrophobic The Terror. It’s finally on Oczy Mlody where the band combines its sober and whimsical sides, extolling the weird virtues of unicorns and fairies not with abandon, but with intent.
This tempered approach gives Oczy Mlody the unnerving and absurdist charm of a neon parade accidentally routed through a patch of scorched earth, making it the realest encapsulation of the whole Flaming Lips universe. Part of this appeal is nostalgic, even anthological: The band revives some of its long-lost sonic calling cards for this album, like the lo-fi orchestration and spacey surf guitars of The Soft Bulletin, and elsewhere mixes the sunny soundscapes of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with the amp-shaking fuzz of Embryonic. But Oczy Mlody stands clearly as a curious thing of its own, a masterstroke of rhythm and tone that neither trips head-on into bliss nor spins into dismay.
Following an instrumental opener, “How??” is a gorgeously edgy proper start to the album. The track finds lead singer Wayne Coyne waxing political over an atmosphere busy with proggy organs, rattling synths, and snare drums that sound like fighter jets speeding through the sky. He briefly loses his cool during the song’s bridge—“Back when we were young/We killed everyone if they fucked with us,” he sings—before a singalong section heavily indebted to Kraftwerk recovers the calm. “Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)” and “The Castle” are two more of Coyne’s hallucinogenic lullabies, unfolding against the band’s mutating arrangements and spasmodic production cues: “Sunrise” is nearly derailed by a horror-film choir, while the chorus of “The Castle” faces an onslaught of blips that suggest a Casio keyboard malfunctioning.
Slotted between these soft patches—which register most directly as recognizable Flaming Lips—are stretches of agile experimentation, not so much the band disrupting their standard formula as attempting to rein in a fury of truly bizarre concepts and noise. “Galaxy I Sink” and “Do Glowy” are demented processionals, pulsating with the acerbic nerve of Can’s Tago Mago and spooked with two of Coynes’s icier vocal performances: muffled and robotic on “Galaxy,” Auto-Tuned and burned-out on “Do Glowy.”
These tracks also prominently feature bells and chimes, instruments generally associated with churches, clocks, and order but wielded all over Oczy Mlody in a loose and remarkably eerie fashion—a constant indication on the Flaming Lips’s part that things aren’t operating quite as normal. The drunken and distilled chime riff on “Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes” is perhaps the album’s creepiest, most mesmerizing moment, especially paired with the foggy-eyed lyric of its chorus: “Have you ever seen someone die?”
What makes Oczy Mlody so enthralling is that the Flaming Lips are ambitious in their exploration of the aftermath of their typical spectacle. The timpani assault that opens “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill” and the forlorn steel drums that close “Almost Home” aren’t episodes of unfocused noodling, but clever counterpoints to the mood and flow of the songs that contain them; even cartoonish effects like the spoken-word passage from “There Should Be Unicorns” come through as cohesive and appropriately concise. It’s fitting on ebullient closer “We a Family” (featuring a marble-mouthed Miley Cyrus) that the band fumbles at last into a reconstructed swagger, blending Christmastime strings, earworm synths, and trap percussion into cosmic balladry with a frolicking cowboy soul.
Coyne has explained that Oczy Mlody’s title is a Polish phrase to which he assigned novel meaning—the name of a new drug that transports its user back to youthful wonder—before he knew what it actually meant (“eyes of the young”). (Polish titles appear in a few other places, mostly because their cadence appealed to Coyne.) This album is similarly unassuming and exploratory, trading sonic bombast and maximalism for intriguing musical patterns that repeat across songs, fade in and out with irregularity, and seem to discover themselves in the arithmetic of their own unfolding.
The result is that Oczy Mlody doesn’t overwhelm or immediately impress, but instead invites listeners into its elusory world of crossed senses, unassigned values, and blind turns, hoping they end up in the same place Coyne thinks he’s headed: to an idyllic future state that feels just like the past.