Some would argue that we all have a dark side. We may not ever choose to embrace it, but it’s still there, lurking just below the surface. It may sneak out in the form of an angry outburst, or it might manifest as a passing thought, its malicious nature surprising even to you, and which you would share with no one. The Flaming Lips have always been cognizant of the fact that there is plenty of darkness in the world. They constantly acknowledge it in their music, but the fearless freaks usually choose to look on the bright side of things. However, everyone has a breaking point, and it seems The Flaming Lips have finally reached theirs with their 13th record, The Terror.
“Look… The Sun is Rising” may seem like an optimistic enough title, but the tone of The Terror’s first track is quite bleak both musically and lyrically. The rising sun is not a good thing—no, not good at all. The song features many Lips tropes like images of U.F.O.s and celestial bodies, but not in the feel-good manner they’ve been used in the past. Here, they are much more foreboding. Coupled with a reference to MK-Ultra, the CIA’s two decade-long foray into unethical mind-control experiments, and lyrics like “Love is always something / Something you should fear,” it becomes clear that the band is taking a stab at embracing their dark side.
In many ways, The Terror is very reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s meditation on madness, Dark Side of the Moon. Both records are hypnotizing, trance-inducing explorations of dark themes. Extended, psychedelic instrumental breaks are prevalent on both albums, and the songs that make them up flow from one to the other flawlessly. Hell, The Terror even features psychotic voiceovers similar to those found on Floyd’s classic record. It would almost be safe to say The Flaming Lips have hit closer to the classic record here than on the Dark Side cover album they released a few years ago.
A general sense of gloom and unease pervades the entire the record with other tracks like “You Are Alone” and “Turning Violent.” “You Lust” is a whopping 13-minute number (well, it would’ve been considered whopping for a band who hadn’t already released a 24-hour song, anyway) propelled by a steady riff and punctuated by mysterious voices chanting the song’s title. Like much of The Flaming Lips’ oeuvre (and Pink Floyd’s for that matter), the new album is incredibly sonic. Sounds come from every which way, and the instrumentation responsible is often indeterminable.
The lyrical content of the album is very philosophical, like much of The Flaming Lips’ music (e.g. “Do You Realize??”), but the philosophy here seems much less defined than in previous work. Perhaps this is because The Flips don’t fully understand the themes under scrutiny either. This record is made up almost entirely of questions rather than answers. And the questions posed are not rhetorical—the Lips seem to be pleading with the listener for some sort of explanation to ease their frightening uncertainty. Instead of spouting truths like “it’s hard to make the good things last” or “life without death is just impossible,” the band is asking questions like, “Did God make pain so we can know the high that nothing is?”
The Terror isn’t all doom and gloom, though. There are at least a few vague notes of optimism. “Be Free, A Way” at least seems to slightly suggest there might, just maybe, be a way to escape the existential crises that plague them, but it doesn’t offer anything concrete. It’s a different record for The Flaming Lips, but an exceptionally interesting one. It takes the same ideas they’ve been exploring for years, but this time they’re examining the other side of the coin. The record’s closing track, “Always There, In Our Hearts,” seems to kind of sum up all the issues The Terror explores. It asserts that there is a balance in world. Sure there is pain, but there is also love. Our hearts are filled with happiness, but you can’t have that without the sorrow. We have no control over it, and sure, it can be a little overwhelming. But that’s the way it is. The sun rises, and the sun sets. The universe began, and someday it will end.