I WAS LATE to the Flaming Lips party all three times. The first was their early acid-punk era, which was essentially over by the time I heard their 1993 album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart as a teen, finding it both loveable and beguilingly strange.
The second time was following the release of 1999's The Soft Bulletin; the record had been out for a good many months before I got around to listening to it. I remember being irritated by Bulletin's preponderance of synthesizers over the gloriously chunky guitars of Satellite Heart even as I agreed with its rave reviews: this was unique and deeply moving music, dealing with multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd's heroin addiction with unabashed positivity.
The third time was not until the Flaming Lips became, sort of incredibly, one of the biggest live bands on the planet after the release of 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Their concerts became more like love-ins than rock shows, with lead singer Wayne Coyne rolling atop the crowd inside a giant bubble, fake blood streaming down his face, an army of enthusiastic furries dancing on the sidelines. When I finally saw a show, it was as silly and enjoyable as I had been led to believe.
We're still safely within this third, confetti-strewn era of the Flaming Lips, and there's no reason to believe it won't last for the remainder of their career. Their live shows currently attract a crew of thrill-seekers looking for a (possibly drug-assisted) good time at the expense of virtually everything else, including meaningful music. Coyne should be commended for his commitment to putting on a spectacle—the man is more or less responsible for every last little onstage detail—but it seems clear that the Lips have stagnated musically. 2006's At War with the Mystics was marred by long stretches of tedium surrounding fan-baiting fare like the effervescently irritating "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song." 2009's double album Embryonic, meanwhile, should have jumpstarted their creativity: Its harsher sound probably really frightened the ecstasy casualties in their fanbase, but the record felt unfinished, barren of any real content.
At the Sasquatch! Music Festival this year, the Lips performed The Soft Bulletin in full, and the party-hearty audience found its forlorn meanderings a total buzzkill. It also didn't help that the Lips, never a virtuosic powerhouse, didn't sound as if they remembered the album very well. Now it seems the Lips are trying to avoid making another album altogether. Their last full-length was a cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and if you can persuade me why such a record needs to exist, I will build you a house made out of chocolate. They've since released a couple EPs on flash drives embedded in gummy candy, which is not the work of people who are attempting to make music that people will actually listen to. The latest reports have them working on a six-hour song, and if you make a $100 donation to the Oklahoma Humane Society you'll be mentioned in the lyrics. (If you find yourself listening to this entire six-hour song, I implore you to reevaluate your life.)
I don't ever want to stop rooting for the Flaming Lips. Their story is one of the most incredible in American music, and their late-career success is downright heartwarming. But without any new songs to sing, each giant, confetti-filled balloon that bounces over their crowds becomes a hollow reminder that there's less and less to celebrate.