Think for a second, really think, about all the cockamamie shit the Flaming Lips have pulled in their 20 year tenure on a major label. After failing to register on the charts with 1992’s Hit to Death in the Future Head, the Flaming Lips scored a left field hit with Transmissions from the Satellite Heart’s “She Don’t Use Jelly,” only to flop commercially on the follow-up, 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic. Any musical act in its right mind would’ve cleaned up to move some units on penalty of being dropped, but instead, the Lips’ released Zaireeka, a sound experiment that required simultaneous play on four different stereos to be heard properly. This is clearly not a band that gives a damn what anyone thinks of them, and in the years following The Soft Bulletin, their 1999 critical breakthrough, they’ve followed the muse wherever it takes them, demolishing and radically recreating themselves with each subsequent release. That said, it’s been a little disconcerting to see a band with such a fearless sense of self wandering so hopelessly adrift through the three years that have passed since 2009’s double disc freak-out Embryonic.
Since Embryonic’s release, the band has thundered through a series of increasingly gimmicky stunts that included a song-for-song cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, collaborative EPs with chillwave holdover Neon Indian, instrumental hip hop czar Prefuse 73, Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band and noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt, a six hour song, a 24-hour song, and various loose tracks released on USBs encased in gummy replicas of human skulls and unborn fetuses. Much of it worked, but a lot of it didn’t, and questions began to arise about whether or not the jig was officially up. Luckily, to hear the band tell it, they’ve already transmogrified into yet another exciting and new version of themselves, but not before leaving a monument to 2011’s wanderlust in the form of the Record Store Day one-shot, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, thirteen songs of psychedelic madness assisted by a literal who’s who of modern music.
Opener “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” is an apocalyptic update on the Stooges’ punky state of the union address, “1969.” “2012” is even bleaker, and guest star Ke$ha decides to meet her impending doom on acid. The song’s clattering, industrial shuffle gives way to a gorgeous bridge, Ke$ha’s bratty, off-time, offkey yawp softening into a gorgeous whisper, before diving right back into the maelstrom. On “You, Man? Human???,” Nick Cave delivers a bilous monologue every bit as sleazy and chaotic as the sludge rock the band serves him. Bon Iver mans the outfield on the dirgelike “Ashes in the Air,” playing the soulful Michael McDonald to the Lips’ Steely Dan, while Erykah Badu bewitches as she leads the way through a stately, droning cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Even Coldplay’s Chris Martin tiptoes into album closer “I Don’t Want You to Die” to provide a spectral and typically forlorn middle eight to Coyne and company’s sorta-remake of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” As bonkers as the guest list gets, though, Heady Fwends continues to deliver, and its successes are testament both to the Lips’ pliable versatility and to the ingenuity of their guests, each of whom galvanizes the Lips by bringing a new energy to the affair.
The triumph of Heady Fwends lies the way it sands off the rough edges off 2011’s excess and whittles an honest, enjoyable set out of the mire while coaxing a wealth of unexpected voices into the fray without losing its way. Previously released tracks from the occasionally spotty 2011 EPs are kept to a minimum with a glut of tracks mostly relegated to the album’s sometimes menacingly slow-going back end, and by and large, they’ve cherry-picked the best and most intriguing of the bunch, zonked out, late album Yoko Ono shit-fit notwithstanding. As a roadmap of the last year or so of the Flaming Lips’ long, strange trip, Heady Fwends delivers. As an album, maybe not so much. But with individual highlights that shine like they do, and missteps so scant, what more could we really ask for?