In 1985, The Clash recorded its last album, an embarrassing and irredeemably noxious dud known as Cut the Crap. Five thousand miles away, a young group of Oklahoma freaks was recording its first: a loud, gleeful, acid-damaged racket by the name of Hear It Is. The two bands seemed drastically apart in both geography and circumstance: one disintegrating despite numerous Top 40 hits three years prior, the other in its chaotic (and fervently anti-commercial) infancy. You would not, in 1985, have seen much possibility of their paths ever crossing.
Now it’s 2019: The Flaming Lips have survived for a third of a century, and Clash guitarist Mick Jones (who, to his everlasting credit, had nothing to do with Cut the Crap) is prominently featured throughout their new album, narrating a head-scratching tale about a giant baby who grows up to be king. The world is strange sometimes. And no band has embraced that strangeness with as much enthusiasm and sheer inexhaustibility as the Lips.
I won’t bore you by attempting to describe the narrative plot of King’s Mouth, the group’s 15th (or 17th, or 18th—do those confounding Fwends releases count?) studio album. That would be like trying to fact-check the science behind “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles.” Suffice it to say that it’s a concept album involving birth, death, monarchy—a peculiarly British spin on the usual Wayne Coyne trippiness—and that it functions as a soundtrack to Coyne’s recent audiovisual art installation of the same name. I will, however, take joy in reporting that King’s Mouth is the Lips’ most ebullient and downright listenable album in years, with a surreal narrative arc and concision that recalls (if doesn’t quite equal) 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
That’s not the same as saying King’s Mouth is the best late-period Lips album (Embryonic simply rules too much), but after the ponderous indulgence of 2017’s frustrating Oczy Mlody, this is still a cause for celebration. “The Sparrow” (not to be confused with 2009’s “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine”) and “Giant Newborn” set the tone here, two lightly psychedelic highlights full of oddball newborn imagery that would be intriguing even if they didn’t connect to a larger narrative. The former contains prototypical Coynisms like “The universe brought you here / The universe can take you away”; the latter boasts stuttering hip-hop beats and a recurring synth effect that resembles an alien zipper sound. Both are preceded by mournful passages of spoken-word narration, delivered by Jones with all the wonder and detachment of a worldly nature documentarian.
There is a palpable and surprising trip-hop influence here, which, when combined with Jones’ highly British presence, suggests the vibe of a Gorillaz album. “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot,” in particular, is a twitchy, invigorating funk-rock workout, which, among other virtues, features the welcome return of the classic Steven Drozd distorted drum sound. The track climaxes with exhortations to chop off the king’s head, which leads us into an intergalactic funeral march (“Funeral Parade”).
The album’s unusual title draws from a subsequent narrative passage (“Dipped in Steel”) in which the late king’s gigantic mouth is “frozen, sealed, dipped in steel / Screaming thy last scream.” The townspeople climb inside the mouth. It’s evocative, deeply strange stuff. The album’s quasi-theme song, “Mouth of the King,” is musically undercooked—we’ve heard Coyne’s autotuned whine set to simplistic acoustic chords before—but the jovial finale, “How Can a Head??,” is better. At 58, Coyne is still out here delivering dazed musings like: “How can a mouth hold so many things? / All our teeth, all our words, all the songs we sing.” It’s the sort of childlike wonder that has characterized his best lyrics since before Lips pal Miley Cyrus was born. Conversely, as anyone familiar with “Do You Realize??” can attest, he is sometimes prone to overly obvious cosmic platitudes, such as “It made me understand / That life sometimes is sad” (“Giant Baby”).
This is minor material from the band that brought us Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, but who cares? King’s Mouth is sunny psychedelia with a bonkers storyline and some of the band’s most convincing pop tunes in years (I haven’t even mentioned “All for the Life of the City,” which is full of Drozd’s melodic fingerprints). It’s pleasantly concise—a welcome change from Oczy Mlody and Heady Fwends—and doesn’t rely on excessive guests, 24-hour songs, LPs pressed with menstrual blood, or any other gimmickry to impress you. Now we wait for the Broadway adaptation.