In Defense of … The Flaming Lips’ ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’
When the Flaming Lips scored a Top 10 hit on the modern rock chart in 1994 with ‘She Don’t Use Jelly,’ the band was widely dismissed as little more than an obscure neo-pyschedelia outfit from Oklahoma City lucky enough to snag approval from MTV tastemakers ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ and ride it for all it was worth.
A bevy of high-profile gigs followed — including a legendary performances of the tune on MTV’s ‘The Jon Stewart Show’ to an infamously awkward stab at it on the cheesy teen drama ‘Beverly Hills, 90210′ — but little in the way of attention was actually paid to the album that spawned the hit (1993’s ‘Transmissions From the Satellite Heart’), the band’s impressive back catalog of catchy, noise-freaked avant post-punk (five previous albums in total, spanning all the way back to 1986’s ‘Hear It Is’) or even frontman Wayne Coyne himself, who would eventually settle into his role running the ever-evolving Flaming Lips family like a lysergic-dosed cult leader tending to his loyal flock.
A few years later, the Lips were scoring mounds of critical acclaim with their seventh album, ‘The Soft Bulletin,’ which saw the band turn a musical corner by moving on from the bubblegum psych-pop pastiche of before to a more epic, orchestrated and grand spectacle, with Coyne finally finding more depth in his voice — both as a vocalist and a performer. The group soon gained widespread recognition for their live shows, which became over-the-top performance art showcases featuring people dressed up in furry animal costumes, bubble and fog machines, pounds of confetti and gallons of fake blood.
But what about the years in between ‘Transmissions from the Satellite Heart’ and ‘The Soft Bulletin’? Some might call them the Flaming Lips’ Lost Years and 1995’s ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ their Forgotten Album, but we’d prefer to call the record their Forgotten Masterpiece.
‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ is the culmination of more than a decade of work, the results of band finding its footing while freaking out in the ’80s with albums like ‘Telepathic Surgery,’ getting a hold of the direction it was headed in the early ’90s on ‘In a Priest Driven Ambulance’ and then finally getting some of the recognition it deserved with ‘Transmissions From the Satellite Heart,’ even if it was thanks only to a novelty hit.
The success spawned by ‘Transmissions’ made ‘Clouds’ possible, due to the influx of cash and additional clout with their record label allowing them to spend the time they wanted in the studio. The result may not be their ‘Pet Sounds’ or ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ — ‘The Soft Bulletin’ often gets that comparison — but it is a dense pop masterpiece in its own right, and the kind of album that only the Flaming Lips could make.
From the gratifyingly scratchy warble of Coyne’s voice and the barely tuned upright piano chords that kick off opener ‘The Abandoned Hospital Ship’ all the way through to the fuzz-drenched guitar jam (complete with the playful, childlike xylophone twinkles) that closes out the Brian Wilson-tinged final track ‘Bad Days’ 45 minutes later, ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ brings together all the weird humor, undeniably catchy melodies and off-kilter noise freak-outs showcased throughout the Lips catalog up to that point.
For a taste of that humor, one needn’t look beyond the tabloid-esque titles of some of the songs: ‘Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles’ or ‘Placebo Headwound’ or ‘They Punctured My Yolk’ or, more to the point, ‘Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World.’
Sonically, the album is a throwback to the so-called “headphones albums” of the ’60s and ’70s; like Pink Floyd‘s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or Jimi Hendrix‘s ‘Electric Ladyland,’ it’s the kind of album best experienced while sitting in the dark and taking it all in through a good pair of headphones, giving the listener a chance to pick up on all the little audio flourishes that hearing it on a car stereo or boombox would make one miss out on. Also like those albums, you can forget about skipping from track to track; it’s best experienced organic, listened to from beginning to end.
Dave Fridmann, a member of the equally freaked-out band Mercury Rev and producer of every Flaming Lips album since 1990 (except, curiously enough, ‘Transmissions’) does his best to make sure ‘Clouds’ lives up to its “headphones album” reputation, and it certainly does. Fridmann may be better known these days for his work with bands like Weezer, Sleater-Kinney, MGMT and Tame Impala, but it’s definitely the Flaming Lips that put him on the map.
Maybe the band’s label, Warner Bros., was hoping to have lightning strike twice when they picked ‘This Here Giraffe’ and its quirky horn intro as the first single from ‘Clouds.’ Like ‘She Don’t Use Jelly,’ it could be written off as a mere novelty tune with the potential to score big coming out of left field, although ‘Giraffe’ didn’t have that same instant resonance with fans as ‘Jelly’ did, and didn’t even manage an appearance on the Modern Rock Tracks chart in the U.S. (it did sneak in at No. 72 on the U.K. singles chart, though). Perhaps Warner Bros. should’ve known that, coming from an album with a tune called ‘Lightning Strikes the Postman,’ lightning wasn’t going to strike twice with ‘This Here Giraffe.’
And despite all the attention that came their way in the wake of ‘She Don’t Use Jelly,’ the Flaming Lips weren’t able to keep the momentum going with ‘Clouds Taste Metallic,’ which failed to chart and even soon found its way into some bargain bins at indie record stores across the country. Luckily for Coyne and the rest of his Oklahoma City brethren, it wasn’t long before the band’s profile was raised once again, this time on the back of not a single novelty hit but a critically acclaimed album, 1999’s ‘The Soft Bulletin,’ which was quickly followed up by the equally popular 2002 release ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ (their first gold-certified album in the U.S.), 2006’s ‘At War With the Mystics’ (which debuted at No. 11 on the album chart) and 2009’s ‘Embryonic’ (which reached No. 8 on that chart, their best showing to date).
Two decades after ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ brought the Flaming Lips to the mainstream, the band is now bigger than it ever could’ve imagined itself being. Credit ‘Jelly’ for help jump-starting their career, but it’s the under appreciated ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ that truly spawned a new era for the band, inspiring the Lips with the ambition needed to create their modern-day masterpieces. The rest, as they say, is history.