Those disillusioned with the Lips’ transition into the world’s weirdest party band must’ve longed for something like this.
King’s Mouth is the first Flaming Lips album to really look back, ditching the Miley Cyrus party hijinks and festival-stage vaudeville to return to Wayne Coyne’s fixation with the overwhelming goodness he sees in the universe—set, as always, against grand sci-fi sweep. But there’s not much sense in wishing it into the next Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
King’s Mouth doesn’t really have any good songs or songs in general, for that matter. The 41-minute concept album is structured so all the tracks blend together, interspersed with narration by the Clash’s Mick Jones in the role of bedtime storyteller. This means its most moving moments are often separated by long stretches of orchestral pomp which don’t sweep and swell the way great Lips tracks like “Sleeping on the Roof” do but remain strangely muted, as if heard from behind a wall. There’s an astounding moment on “Giant Baby” where Wayne Coyne slowly pronounces the words “last night I saw your face across the sky” in that voice of his that always seems perched on the verge of joyous tears in the midst of an epiphany. Then it melts into something called “Mother Universe.”
The opening of “How Many Times” is a classic Lips moment. Someone counts to 18 as a brusquely strummed acoustic guitar duets with the happy-go-lucky pop of a drum machine. But the song goes so far into space it’s only when we hear the count repeat briefly at the end we’re reminded we’re listening to the same song. This is typical of King’s Mouth: great Lips moments married to less-than-great songs. I counted three moments when I could predict what Coyne was going to say on the next line, and the lyrics to “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot” are Taio Cruz-trying-to-write-a-bridge-hungover-on-deadline bad: “He was buried in a lot of snow/Colder than fifty below.”
What redeems King’s Mouth, though, is how ridiculously responsive to goodness it is. The plot of the album concerns a giant baby, born to a queen and thus a king, who sacrifices himself to save his people from an avalanche (shades of The Soft Bulletin’s “Waitin’ for a Superman,” one of the saddest songs ever written) and, in death, allows his people to live inside his giant head for eternity. Coyne, never one for politics, doesn’t use this as a jumping-off point to tell us what a good king should do. His reaction is to use the story of the king to wax awestruck about how “we all come from the stars” and all the things a mouth can hold—our tongue, our teeth, the songs we sing. It’s daft, but movingly so.
Those disillusioned with the Lips’ transition into the world’s weirdest party band must’ve longed for something like this. What King’s Mouth makes clear, though, is that the Flaming Lips are a great band because they’ve always kept evolving. Yes, they were once great because they pined for transcendence, but Embryonic, The Terror, and the underrated Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends are great for totally different reasons, and that’s an achievement, especially for a band a third of a century into its recording career. King’s Mouth shows the Lips can still conjure the same feelings as on their best work, but the jury’s still out on whether they can translate them into a great album, and that the Lips are looking back is a more distressing sign than all the gummy-skull shit.