It wasn't as hard to be The Flaming Lips in 1999, when the band was a grunge-era one-hit wonder with a following among the psychotropic noise-pop set. Back then, The Flaming Lips could sneak out a masterpiece like The Soft Bulletin—a lush, inspiring album about mortality—and quietly watch it spread across the rock underground like an epidemic. Fans became disciples, and 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots deepened the devotion, as the Lips refined a futurist-prog-pop sound, using trash-culture metaphors to explain a generation's common fears. Suddenly, The Flaming Lips were alt-rock's positivist, poignant philosopher-kings.
All of which makes the band's new album, At War With The Mystics, so anticipated that it can't help but be a letdown. Perhaps feeling the pressure, The Flaming Lips aggressively defy expectations on about half of Mystic's dozen songs, replacing cosmic wonder with stilted agit-funk like "Free Radicals," on which ringleader Wayne Coyne adopts his best Prince falsetto to put down people who don't practice what they preach. Coyne doffs his allegorical cloak often on Mystics, including on the wigged-out album-opener "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" (a pastiche of twee indie-rock and hippie idealism, with operatic inserts) and "Haven't Got A Clue" (which wraps a set of pissy, accusatory lyrics in tape-trickery and wah-wah guitar).
Is the whole "anthems for the 21st century" approach played out? Not entirely. Coyne and company may have reached the limits of what cartoon universalism can do, but beneath the random bombast on Mystics—which frequently sounds like Steely Dan as heard from the other end of a machine shop—there's some Pink Floyd-styled moodiness and '70s singer-songwriter melodicism that suggests new areas for the band to explore. The album ends with one of the best songs of The Flaming Lips' recent run: "Goin' On," a light, clean midtempo ballad that grapples with the challenges of pushing music forward while addressing the horrors of modern life. "We're getting near it," Coyne promises, which is heartening, since he's just spent almost an hour clumsily retreating.