Black Vacuum of Outerspace Opera (RE:”The Terror”/Flaming Lips etc.)
“We want, or wanted, to believe that without love we would disappear, that love, somehow, would save us that, yeah, if we have love, give love and know love, we are truly alive and if there is no love, there would be no life. The Terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on… we just go on… there is no mercy killing.”
-WAYNE COYNE (describing “the general idea” behind The Terror.)
There ends up being a reason why I intersperse comic frames throughout this review, but you have to read the whole thing in order to figure out just exactly what is so godDAMN funny around here?
† (K)eep (P)utting (O)ff (C)lass (F)or (G)reat (S)ex [esp. w/(T)elepaths]=kingdom, phylum, order, class, family, genus, species. (T)ribe is sometimes included between family and genus. As in, “Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Hominini Homo Sapiens Sapiens”(=Humans).
Here’s what some other people have said about The Terror:
“A general sense of gloom and unease pervades the entire the record.”(Paste)
“A sort of anti-tour-de-force”(Pop Matters)
“With The Terror, the Lips take bleak to new levels. From the opening static blips to the closing reverberated echoing noise, the new record is an atonal, aimless cloud of darkness.”(KEXP)
“I was depressed for days… in a good way.” (New York Times)
“”The lyrics find cosmic repercussions in a lovers’ breakup; loneliness turns to contemplation of grim human compulsions and the end of the universe…”(New York Times)
“The Terror deals in more personal turmoil– loneliness, depression, anxiety… Perhaps not coincidentally, the album was preceded by news of Coyne’s separation from his partner of 25 years, Michelle, and of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd relapsing temporarily.”(Pitchfork)
WEIRD HUMAN DEVELOPMENT/POP-CULTURE PUN
I think “The Terror” is the kind of thing you put together when you realize you’re getting older and you ask yourself—wait, have I still got it? Am I losing it? It’s the Scott Walker effect: if you keep getting better and better and weirder and weirder, more and more free, even as you get older and older–instead of mellowing–you will eventually come to a place of great darkness. And what you do when you get there is anyone’s guess because very few have made it that far. And you will still wonder, “Am I losing it? Am I? Losing it?”
WHY YOU SHOULD(N’T) READ THIS REVIEW
What I have to say is way more autistically specific than what any of these guys are talking about and really has more to do with the psychodynamics of Space Opera than it has to do with music.
DISPENSING WITH PLEASANTRIES
But before I get into all of the psychodynamic Space Opera stuff, to avoid ambiguity, let me just go on the record saying that I think that The Terror is probably the most interesting Flaming Lips album I’ve had the pleasure of fully engaging with at the time of its release.
Years from now I’ll be able to tell if it’s also one of my favorite Flaming Lips’ albums.
By “one of my favorite Flaming Lips’ albums etc.,” I mean it’s definitely in the top five, but is it all the way up at the top with Soft Bulletin? Will I say “Listen to Soft Bulletin for when you’re on top of the world and in good company but keepThe Terror for periods of solitude and introspection?”
Right now I would say that.
But I’m biased because I’ve listened to the album a dozen times in the past week.
In terms of its significance, is The Terror going to be more like Modern Guilt* or is it going to be like Paralytic Stalks†?
*Modern Guilt=totally impeccable & enjoyable album by one of my favorite artists but “impeccable” is apples & oranges from the manic creativity of my favorite work by Beck. I imagine that the way I feel about this album is the way that old school Bowie fans feel about his post 70’s/early 80’s stuff–they love it, but its not quite the same. [Sidenote: Personally I only like a few of Bowie’s earlier albums and then randomly the concept album he put out in the 90’s (The Outside) is, hands down, my favorite thing he ever produced.]
† Paralytic Stalks=A year after its release–having regained equilibrium after early exposure–is, for me, still Kevin Barnes’ towering masterpiece. It’s his greatest creation (produced by Kishi Bashi BTW). This despite the fact that in some ways it doesn’t even resemble the Of Montreal sound that I fell in love with & which characterizes the rest of their body of work. So it would not be quite accurate to say that it’s my favorite album by Of Montreal. It is at once more anomalous & transcendent than that.
I remember standing in a fanboy-swarm-Skype-convo last year with Mr. Barnes at the offices of Joyful Noise. It was sort of like a protoplasmic version of the JNR VIP-exclusive Q&As we’re starting to calendar in for this summer.
What I remember most specifically is that he said something about the depression he’d been suffering during the album’s composition (which had been thoroughly documented & broadcast & so inevitably came up during the informal interview session). And what he said was something along the lines of [this is (hopefully) a close paraphrase, its lifted from a spiral-bound notebook of that period]:
I mean I’ve been depressed before but nothing like this…this.. This time it’s like I’m ontologically diseased, like there is some other-dimensional virus rotting out the floorboards under my whole…like…psychic identity.
(^^^Click here to buy this album on cassette from JNR^^^) (^^^Click here to buy this album on cassette from JNR^^^^)
His point was: Hence the transcendental fucked-ness of the albums final two tracks.
However distinct the psychic states of Kevin Barnes and Wayne Coyne when making these two very different albums, I think that there’s a common resonance around the whole issue of depression transcending itself to the point where it is almost more like ontological instability.
One thing I can say is that The Terror is a deeply moving space opera. If we were talking about another band this conceit might be interesting in and of itself, but this is a milieu with which Wayne Coyne is very comfortable. His best works are one part love story, one part Space Opera & both halves spiked with something psychedelic. But this time, we’re having a bad acid trip.
Things are not going well. The loved one has slipped our net. We are stranded light years away from any hope of rebound or recovery. Forget about rainy days when the blues just won’t go away. How about eons of heat death without hope of reprieve from an unremitting descent into an oblivion of entropic homogeneity? There is no point in trying to regain our composure. The girl is gone. The howling vacuum of outerspace has never been so dark.
Cue “Try To Explain”:
When I later went back and followed the album’s denoument through with the lyric sheet in hand, it fit perfectly. I wondered what caused me to think of Dreadstar right away.
There are some obvious superficial similarities. The stories are dark. Like: DARK, Dark, with a capital D. There is a general ambience of doom, encroaching chaos, fatalism, cosmic annihilation etc. etc.
That heavy vibe is definitely there in both “The Terror” and in Dreadstar.
Both involve apocalypse and, apparently, the concept of religious belief as a pre-historic mythopoetic memory of our alien forebears. Both involve love lost, and linger on the feeling of impotence that flows out across the abyss, searching for connections that have been cut off.
Both involve the destruction of an entire universe.
Vanth Dreadstar is a guy from an ice-planet who has serious guilt issues. These issues center around his involvement with a plot that–in an ancient past & largely without his willing participation–resulted in the destruction of the Milky Way Galaxy.
So that’s sort of hard row to hoe right off the bat. Trillions and trillions of intelligent beings dead in a flaming nimbus of devastation. Early on in his second round of adventures (in a galaxy that contains life-forms remarkably near-identical to Milky Way humanoids & two large Imperialist entities locked into a geo-political struggle that is disillusioningly similar to the one we had going on near the end of the Milky Way) he ends up stealing some gear from the Church of the Instrumentality on a risky mission that sadly results in the entire planet he’s stealing parts from getting immolated via nuclear assault. Talk about terrible luck.
But Vanth’s whole problem with recurring planetary holocausts just happening to fall into his lap left and right is just the beginning of his troubles.
It turns out that he is also positively a genius when it comes to picking wives who will unavoidably wind-up being ravished and murdered by the regional vanguard of Imperial Shocktroops attached to one or another of the local Interstellar Military-Industrial Complexes that seem to have absolutely contaminated the universe.
After leaving a number of wives, galaxies and planets reduced to lifeless cinders behind him Vanth Dreadstar winds up as the Captain of a crew of Space Pirates whose mission is to save the galaxy. Just like back in the Milky Way, Vanth’s XO is an Obi-Wan wizard-ey guy straight out Carl Jungian Central Casting (the first is named Akhenaten, the 2nd Syzgy). The crew’s number includes a blind, cybernetic telepath named Willow (she can read the minds of computers). Willow will be the angineux for the majority of Dreadstar’s published run. But in the end she ends up being integrated into the mainframe of a computer–so close but so far. Another unbridgeable gap.
On the 3rd track of “The Terror” Wayne Coyne sings:
A love that explodes/Convulsing your body/Your only hand extending under the…/Try then walking away / on a bridge/ to nowhere/To nowhere/, to no one///Try to explain why you’ve changed/I don’t think I’ll understand…
There’s a fancy word for the historical periods in which Space Operas take place: Paleo-futures. That means it’s a future that already ended up not coming true.
So for example it turned out that most environments outside of Earth atmosphere–even if they happen to be located on a planet with an atmosphere. You would pretty much take one whiff of the air on Venus and then experience violent & immediate organ failure & brain-death or whichever one came first. After that frolicking around on other planets in spandex became somewhat outmoded as a realistic vision of the future, but we kept on making Space Operas where that was just the way we humanoids liked to roll.
Instead of flying, finned Cadillacs we got smartphones and the internet. Many of us no longer have to drive to work at all, but the vision of a future where we could fly to the office still strikes a nostalgic chord.
So it goes. A wise man once said: ““They say, ‘The coward dies many times'; so does the beloved. Didn’t the eagle find a fresh liver to tear in Prometheus every time it dined?”
When we’ve lost someone our psychic life can be chokingly polluted with all the possible futures that didn’t happen. We feel powerfully that–if given another chance–our dynamism would create a new and better world. Mentally we inhabit a fantasy of that world for a while.
And then on the other hand,in retrospect, our real relationship as we remember it seems as if it were enacted by clunky automata. In the movie version of love, constantly on replay, you find yourself with one of the main speaking roles, but you don’t know any of the lines. O you know them now. Now you know what you should have said. But for some reason–if for example, we have a chance to talk to our ex for a brief moment on the phone or on the street–the words desert you as soon as you walk on the stage. As if someone or something else were pulling our strings.
Wayne Coyne sings:
You can hear the voice
Telling you who to love
It’s the voice of MK Ultra
And you’re doing what it wants
Dr. Sidney Gottlieb’s Approval of MKULTRA Subproject #8 on LSD-June 9,1953
Drawing from the Book, Volume 3: The Most Fine Art of Redaction. A Primer In the Erasure of Grand Ideas Check out the book & other art here.
From Wikipedia: In Operation Midnight Climax–a subplot of MK Ultra–the CIA set up several brothels in San Francisco, California to obtain a selection of men who would be too embarrassed to talk about the events. The men were dosed with LSD, the brothels were equipped with one-way mirrors, and the sessions were filmed for later viewing and study. In other experiments where people were given LSD without their knowledge, they were interrogated under bright lights with doctors in the background taking notes. The subjects were told that their “trips” would be extended indefinitely if they refused to reveal their secrets. The people being interrogated this way were CIA employees, U. S. military personnel, and agents suspected of working for the other side in the Cold War. Long-term debilitation and several deaths resulted from this.
The US set up MK Ultra to make sure that we had the ability to counter-attack Soviet, Vietcong, North Korean & Maoist MIND CONTROL techniques. Those commies were turning our POW’s into mindless zombies. We couldn’t imagine any other reason someone would want to defect.
But it turns out they didn’t have a big mind control apparatus over there on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The commies weren’t any better at turning people into voodoo dolls then we were. And we weren’t very good at it.
This is like…the law of unintended consequences. So we introduced the LSD into college campuses as part of a project to maintain the unquestioning allegiance of America’s youth by reverse engineering brainwashing techniques to maintain the loyalty of our citizens by defending against such measures when and if they were deployed by the Soviets. To protect our patritiotic ideals.
I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you. But guess what happened? Did the introduction of LSD result in enhanced allegiance to the cause of American capitalism among the youth?
Nope. But I’ll tell you what it did result in: The Flaming Lips.
THE END OF THE WORLD II
(This time…it’s payback.)
There is a song by DMA called IKND, which acronym stands for “I Keep Not Dying.” It’s a song that resonates with my life-experience, both romantic and otherwise.
Unfortunately for us, the world doesn’t end. We are all left alone together, hurdling through the cold reaches of outer-space in a Japanese hatchback with almost 200,000 miles on it whose bald tires are glued by gravity to this forsaken rock.
Forsaken by whom? Forsaken by the version of your ex who would have loved and understood you–not just in the past but in the present & future too.
There is actually a song on this album called, “You Are Alone.” Thankfully it’s not a series of recursive questions about existential meaning in a godless universe. As far as I can tell it’s the internal monologue of a guy who is wondering if his ex has started sleeping with someone else yet.
When all the nylon caped humanoids evaporate, beaming up to MK Ultra’s stratospheric headquarters, we stare out across the harsh and forbidding landscape, left behind on a hostile planet: the one where our relationship has just ended.
That’s where Dreadstar is different than us. There’s just no one like him. Literally.
As in literally no one has ever survived the detonation of the Milky Way Galaxy, much less the loss of two wives to the brutal whims of Imperial Star Troops from outer-space, plus a frustrated & circumstantially retarded potential love-interest because she turned into a computer.
But of course, then again, neither has Vanth Dreadstar really. Since he doesn’t exist.
He’s just a way for someone to articulate what it feels to lose someone, or an echo of someone trying to articulate that feeling. Because broken hearts move units off of the shelves and magnetize money into the cash register.
Someone told a story once upon a time, about their broken heart, and then it became everyone’s story. Our memory’s are remolded to fit the narrative frame that pop culture sold us to help us make sense of our loss. That is, pop culture wasn’t particularly interested in helping us to make sense of things. But we were particularly interested, and abnormally willing to part with cash in exchange for an explanation that promised a coherent sequence scrolling towards redemption.
Because that is your job when you’re newly single: spending money like you have it since no one is watching over your shoulder anymore.
And pop culture’s job is to shape-shift into objects that promise to answer the question the money is asking.
Just like the Android Messiah in Plan M: the secret heart of Salvation is a blank screen onto which we project our desires. Freedom’s just another word for money that we’d like to get rid of. Save me from this question: What am I supposed to do now that you’re gone?
Buy this book. Buy our new record.
The Vanth Dreadstar story works, strangely enough, because people can relate to the thing he’s symbolizing. Maybe they can’t relate to being exiled outside of the Milky Way. But they can relate to being exiled inside of the Milky Way. Here’s a guy who describes that (this observation comes at the end of a longer meditation about how worthless everything is without the one he loves):
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
And this is how I’ll end this review, with the song that Coyne ended the album with:
ALWAYS THERE IN OUR HEARTS/SOMETHING PURE WE CAN’T CONTROL/CAN’T CONTROL / CAN’T CONTROL / CAN’T CONTROL/ALWAYS THERE IN OUR HEARTS / DESTROYING EVERYTHING WE KNOW / … / A JOY THAT OVERWHELMS / OVERWHELMS / OVERWHELMS / OVERWHELMS