Ever since Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd stopped writing actual songs and started dealing in psychedelic freakouts that literally last for up to 24 hours, lazy collaborative jams with every indie-rock and pop artist in the phonebook, and miserable, colorless dirges (see last year’s The Terror), the Flaming Lips’ brand has experienced a precipitous decline. It’s not like they were above a misstep here or there in the past (remember Christmas on Mars?), but it’s almost impossible to fathom the current incarnation of the Lips producing anything that approaches the emotional compositional heft of “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain,” “Turn It On,” or “Do You Realize??”
The Lips’ latest stunt is the inanely titled With a Little Help from My Fwends, a full album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which features over two-dozen genre-spanning guest stars performing songs produced by the band. Maybe the Lips can’t be blamed entirely for this headache-inducing clusterfuck, since they’re only credited with performing on about half the album’s tracks. But under their purview, Wayne’s many fwends share in his band’s mission to desecrate the Beatles’ opus with ugly, druggy, mismatched exercises in shoving as many unnecessary synths, obnoxious vocal effects, and overbearing (and overcompressed) modern production techniques into the mix as possible. The Lips have always peppered their songs with weird noises, especially when Ronald Jones was in the band, but until recently, these affectations were never substitutes for melody. Indeed, while The Terror used alienating reverb and a forest of synths to disguise the fact that it barely had any good songs on it, With a Little Help from My Fwends applies comparable tricks to destroy some of the greatest pop songs of all time.
Not that Sgt. Pepper is so unassailable to be beyond some aggressive re-envisioning, no matter what Rolling Stone tells you; it’s probably softer in the middle than you remember, and I’ve always thought “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “Within You Without You” were two of the dullest songs in the Beatles canon (the moribound versions here have done nothing to improve my opinion). Of course, it’s impossible to completely ruin songs as inherently melodic as “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “Lovely Rita.” And Coyne and Drozd’s side project Electric Würms’ atmospheric, acoustic-based take on “Fixing a Hole” displays some much-needed restraint, while Phantogram’s electro-pop reimagining of “She’s Leaving Home” is actually a worthwhile experiment. But most of the covers on With a Little Help from My Fwends don’t aim for creative rearrangement; they tend more toward pointless sabotage.
This can be largely attributed to the fact that the Lips chose to pair guest artists up with wildly disparate ideas about how the songs should go, and who were ostensibly not in the same studio when they were performed. For instance, My Morning Jacket and Fever the Ghost don’t even bother playing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the same key, and whoever mixed J Mascis’s squealing guitar solo should have reconsidered making it five times louder than everything else. Elsewhere, it made sense to give the peppy “Getting Better” to congenial indie folk rockers Dr. Dog, but certainly not to allow rapper Chuck Inglish to tunelessly warble atop their backing track.
Almost every artist who appears on With a Little Help from My Fwends sounds incredibly confused about what the hell they’re supposed to be doing—except, remarkably, Coyne’s new BFF, Miley Cyrus. The pop singer positions herself as arguably the album’s most reassuring presence on Paul McCartney’s middle section of “A Day in the Life” and the verses of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which is ultimately marred by the Lips’ gratingly bombastic choruses and some random interjections from Moby that, like the album as a whole, define the term superfluous.