"I love those alien days"
Best Song: Introspection
Worst Song: I Love You Too, Death
Well, they lost all their fair-weather synth-pop friends after Congrats, and thus they decided to go for broke and become even stranger, resulting in what has to be the weirdest major-label album in some time. Flaming Lips producer Dave Friddman was brought in to amp up the sound with some technicolor, psychedelic fireworks, and...well, he certainly amped it up, but not necessarily in a good way. The album as a whole reeks of over-compression, almost to the point of causing the listener to become uncomfortable.
And while every other critic is remarking on this as well, you should really take it seriously that I'm bringing it up -- you see, the so-called "Loudness War" has never really bothered me. Plenty of albums have been accused of excessive noise over the past few years, but very, very few have ever bothered me to any noticeable degree. And even if I do notice it, I'll typically just bump the bass up in my car or iPod or what-have-you, and then proceed to completely forget about it.
But not so here -- every song here just has the almost sickening level of trebly crunch added on to it, and while I guess it isn't *that* big of a deal, it probably cost the album a point or two. Not to mention that this sound is remarkably constant throughout the entire LP, giving the whole affair a very repetitive vibe. In short: the production doesn't ruin the album, but it certainly makes it hard to listen to from beginning to end.
With that out of the way, we might as well take a look at the songs. The album kicks off with "Alien Days", which is...well...hm. How do I describe it?
So the track (and the album) starts off with Andrew singing an enchanting duet with a little girl. Noises and sounds gradually build over the first minute or so, and then....*WHOOSH*, you're thrust into the abyss. The meticulously constructed track comes off like a candy-flavored, neon-colored cross between Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man" and Elton John's cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (I'm sure that "LSD" is an influence here, and I mean that in all its various connotations), and it's exactly as strange as it sounds. But it is indeed enjoyable, muddled production and all. It also helps that the actual songwriting here is among the best on the album, so even if you're not particularly crazy about the window dressing, you should be able to at least enjoy the melody. Oh, and it should go without saying -- if "Alien Days" is too weird for you, then you'd better leave the rest of the album alone.
Of course, weirdness isn't an inherently bad thing -- just ask The Flaming Lips (or David Lynch, for that matter) -- but weirdness only for weirdness' sake sorta is a negative. Yeah, Congratulations was weird, but its weirdness was the crumbled cracker topping on an already delicious chicken casserole (METAPHOR HO!). On here, the band seems to have taken on the goal of weirdness first and songs second, and that's a problem.
For example, I think the bizarre sound of the Embryonic-esque "Mystery Disease" is pretty cool (I mean, I did describe it as "Embryonic-esque", didn't I?), but for the life of me, I cannot remember a single thing about the melody except for the semi-catchy repetitions of the title. And with the track coming from a band who provided the world with some of the catchiest pop singles of the late-aughties, this is fairly troubling.
Although that's not to say that there aren't any good ear-worms here -- the mellow, very 60s anthem "Introspection" is a great track with a wonderful vocal melody (although that great melody may only be here because the track's actually a Faine Jade cover -- I guess that explains the 60s vibe), and the repetitive industrial crunch of "Your Life is a Lie" is extremely fun (and the music video is incredibly funny) -- but for the most part, the songs here just pass me by and leave me fairly cold. "Astro-Mancy" and "An Orphan of Fortune" both sound somewhat interesting (and I like the general vibe of both tracks), but both just seem to be nothing more than a bunch of random (but cool!) noises spliced together while Andrew coos a barely-even-there vocal melody over the whole thing. I think the band was trying to go for a more psychedelic version of Kid A/Amnesiac-era Radiohead, and while it works at times (the gradual, unsettling crescendo in the last half of "Astro-Mancy" is admittedly impressive), at others it just feels like nothing's really going on. The only track in this style that truly works for me is "A Good Sadness", which actually features a well-written, eerie vocal melody in addition to all of the random noises.
The first half of "I Love You Too, Death" is more "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors" than "In Limbo", and if you know your Radiohead, you understand that this is something of a problem. Thankfully, the second half is a little bit better; yeah, the production is still ridiculously busy, but the song turns into something of a nice ballad (think "I Found a Whistle"), and it's...listenable. "Plenty of Girls in the Sea" is one of the few moments on the album when the band actually seems like it's having fun (GASP!!), and it's got a nice sing-a-long melody and some funny lyrics, so it works well enough. And the chaotic, noisy instrumental breaks actually work well here -- they provide a nice contrast to the bubblegum-pop of the chorus, and they're mercifully brief.
Yep, it's a mess. A listenable mess, and an interesting one, but a mess. If you're completely in love with Congratulations then you'll probably at least *like* this, but it's nowhere near the level of that masterpiece. I flip-flopped between an 8 and a 9 for this one, and I decided to go with a 9 for effort (plus, I really like a couple of these tracks), but proceed with caution. And hey, guys? We get it. You're not a pop band anymore. You're artísts. But just because something's pleasant to the ear doesn't mean that it's "selling out", alright? So don't be so obsessed with making sure all your pop fans leave you alone that you go completely off the deep end. Life's about balance, ain't it? Well, at any rate -- good luck next time, gentlemen. I'll be rooting for you.