Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Flaming Lips - Clouds Taste Metallic

The Flaming Lips
Clouds Taste Metallic

Released 1995 on Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 25/06/2006ce

1. The Abandoned Hospital Ship (3:38)
2. Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles (3:27)
3. Placebo Headwound (3:40)
4. This Here Giraffe (3:46)
5. Brainville (3:13)
6. Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World (4:29)
7. When You Smile (3:13)
8. Kim's Watermelon Gun (3:21)
9. They Punctured My Yolk (4:21)
10. Lightening Strikes the Postman (2:50)
11. Christmas at the Zoo (3:06)
12. Evil Will Prevail (3:45)
13. Bad Days (Aurally Excited Version) (4:38)

By this stage in their career, The Lips had progressed from the lo-fi psychedelic slacker rock of early albums like 'Oh My Gawd!' and 'In a Priest Driven Ambulance', into something of a loose pop band. 1991's major label debut, 'Hit to Death in the Future Head', and it's follow up, 1993's almost successful 'Transmissions from the Satellite Heart' had seen the arrival of producer Dave Fridmann, as well as the on-going bombardment of revolving-door band members - incorporating early input from both Nathan Roberts and Jonathan Donahue - through to the more stable pairing of founding members Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins, alongside their soon-to-become long-term collaborator Steven Drozd, and the introverted guitar wiz, Ronald Jones. This line up would go on to create 'Transmissions from the Satellite Heart', and this, the twisted pop masterwork that is, 'Clouds Taste Metallic'.

The first thing that hits you when listening to the album is the tinkling piano that introduces the first song, The Abandoned Hospital Ship. Previous Lips albums had opened with violent bursts of white noise or swathes of dissonant feedback (usually leading us headlong into agitated rock songs like Shine on Sweet Jesus from 'In a Priest Driven Ambulance' or Talkin' Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever) from 'Hit to Death...'. The delicate piano, combined with that squeaky, off-kilter vocal styling of Wayne Coyne, immediately sets this up as something a little different, with the Lips moving confidently towards the third phase of their epic career, and more towards the kind pop epiphany that would soon give way to 'The Soft Bulletin', 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' and the more recent (as of 2006) 'At War with the Mystics'. The melodies here were becoming more pronounced, with a more mature focus on the art of song writing and a colossal leap forward for Coyne's creative vision. It's still as lo-fi and rough around the edges as the albums that came before, but with the whole scope and the sense of ambition sent skywards through the development of the actual musical ability of multi-instrumentalist Drozd, who makes it possible for Coyne's surreal little world to veer off into directions previously unachievable... expanding the whole sonic palette into a literally cosmic level of amateur philosophy, poignant rumination and (seemingly?) drug-induced musical exploration.

Listening to the first half of The Abandoned Hospital Ship you realise how The Lips could end up producing songs as polished and mature as Race for the Prize and Waiting for a Superman, that is, until the song reaches the halfway point and then breaks down into a five note guitar figure, which then proceeds to bend and distort until it ends up descending into a mess of noise, feedback, and all out sonic molestation, reminding us that The Lips had once produced tracks as ugly and chaotic as Unconsciously Screamin' and Lucifer Rising, and would later go on to create the experimental album to end all experimental albums, Zaireeka. The sublime noise and feedback of the first track's schizophrenic closer gives way to the first real pop song on the album, Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles. Here, we find Coyne singing about "cats eating dogs / pigs eating rats" before ominously intoning "...every mouth will eat you up, the king bug laughs". Like fellow psychedelic indie explorer Jeff Mangum, Coyne's lyrics are surreal nonsense, seemingly written from the perspective of a child. Sure, he'll never have the creative scope of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, or even Ray Davies - with songwriters like that able to put delicate and complex human emotions and experiences into the context of a simple pop song - but regardless, the sheer insane audacity and the individual worldview that Coyne is able to so effortlessly create is enough to overcome the almost indecipherable quality of the words and those amazingly barmy song titles.

From this point on, the whole album is just a veritable pop Mecca, taking on the notion of a Pet Sounds for amateurs and elaborating on it - as the band set about crafting a collection of teenage symphonies to a junkyard dog (preferably one still floating in space) - whilst all around them the notes and bending and distorting, the vocals are fracturing on the high notes and the whole thing seems in danger of falling apart at any given moment. The fact that it doesn't... the fact that the band end up creating a piece of work that somehow seems more pure and heartfelt than anything Brian Wilson could produce, is a testament to The Lips as a creative unit.

The most astounding thing about 'Clouds Taste Metallic' is the way in which everything just seems to work towards creating a unified whole... from the song titles and the subject matter (obsessions with space travel, science, superheroes, robots, love and death, which would all continue on the more successful albums to follow) to the overall use of instrumentation. Here, Coyne uses the acoustic guitar to flesh out the melody on a number of songs - which gives the album an individuality within the context of their discography - whilst Drozd and Fridmann add keyboards, distortion and all manner of bizarre little instrumental flourishes (including the sculpting of Jones's angular and distorted guitar "riff-age" into a wave of atonal orchestration) to add atmosphere and counter melodies to really compliment the songs as a whole. Placebo Headwound, Kim's Watermelon Gun and Lightening Strikes the Postman do the whole surreal pop thing better than The Pixies ever did - with The Lips (as a band) firing on all creative cylinders - with a great sense of rhythm and percussion, some wonderful production effects and Coyne's little-boy-lost vocals all adding to the overall "pop" quality of the songs as a whole.

Some have cited the project as a "concept album", something that The Lips had flirted with (thematically) on 'a Priest Driven Ambulance' (songs about Jesus, or the lack thereof) and would later attempt (in a fairly half-arsed fashion) with 'Yoshimi...'. Most have tipped the album to be a kind of 'Tommy' or 'S.F. Sorrow' for the pre-millennium generation, with a fragmented plot involving the creation of a deformed test-tube baby with psychic powers attempting to defeat an evil scientist who has managed to channel the sub-atomic energy of the weather (whilst communicating - subconsciously - with the animals at the local zoo), in an attempt to destroy the world. As suggested by the song titles, the boy destroys his brain in the process of trying to save the world, dies in the arms of the animals who had once tried to kill him, and thus, demonstrates that evil, eventually, does prevail. Many of the songs seem to point to such an outlandish concept, in particular, This Here Giraffe, which finds Coyne singing "I saw this man / stick out his neck / with his binoculars intact / he couldn't tell / that the right side of his brain / had lost all interest in his left" or the penultimate track, Evil Will Prevail, which has Coyne hopelessly pining about "loving smiles... stretched so wide they cannot even take a breath" and something about "the magic bullet mother ship that zapped us all to death"!! Obviously, Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World ties this whole idea together, but many of the other songs could really be about anything.

As with any album that attempts to employ a conceptual theme, the interpretation really relies on the individual (and, at the end of the day, there has been no confirmation from Coyne, Ivins or Drozd that such a concept even exists)... songs like When You Smile, Kim's Watermelon Gun and Christmas at the Zoo seem more like children's songs run through the art pop blender, with Coyne singing of innocence and love in a world of uncertainty, as the band keep the whole insane pop vibe spinning to infinity, with Jones making some extraordinary noises with his guitar, Ivins keeping the bass work subtle (and even adding the odd stab of piano) and Drozd offering up some astounding drum fills (the ace rhythm section of Ivins and Drozd really gelling on songs like the aforementioned This Here Giraffe, Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles and one of my favourites of favourites, They Punctured My Yolk).

Here, Coyne sings about rejection and redemption against the context of an ill-fated space mission, the bizarre descriptions coming close to poetry ("good bye, good bye / look as the clouds burst / they're growing taller / as your ship leaves in the distance / my world gets smaller"). Only Coyne could write a track about spacemen and make it sound like a love song... though given the fact that he's spent the last ten years making a film in his garage called 'Christmas on Mars', he probably means it!! Whether or not you chose to approach the album on a conceptual level - or whether you prefer to instead see it as a typically silly pop record - will be completely down to the individual. Either way, there's no denying the creative scope of the band at this stage in their career... managing to turn in a record that uses strong melodies alongside forward-thinking instrumentation, to tell an outrageous story that really, when distilled to its most simplistic formula, is all about finding love and acceptance within a world of apathy and confusion.

For me, 'Clouds Taste Metallic' is the defining moment for The Flaming Lips (thus far). The record in which the mad exploration of the limits of a recording studio merged with something approaching proper song craft, giving way to a purity of vision and an intuitive understanding of what makes great pop. It's a lot less clean and professional sounding than 'The Soft Bulletin', but somehow remains the more enduring of the two. The beguiling beauty of the closing songs, Evil Will Prevail and Bad Days (Aurally Excited Version?), which somehow finds a middle ground between The Beach Boys and country music - as Coyne strums an acoustic guitar whilst insisting "all your bad days will end" - is really quite beautiful and really rather moving, particularly following the over complicated parade of wild imagery that spiralled out of Wayne Coyne's mad kaleidoscopic songbook during the preceding twelve tracks. For me, this is one of the few recorded masterworks of the 1990's... that no one bothered to buy.

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