Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin. Once upon a time there was a giant king baby who, when he grew up, unexpectedly had the whole of outer space, the aurora borealis and the thunderstorms from the south get sucked into his giant head. All while single-handedly holding back an avalanche threatening to destroy his kingdom he’s killed – only for his severed head, when dipped in steel, to live on as a kind of cranial bouncy castle, where visitors can climb in his mouth and gaze blissfully up at the stars and thunderstorms still inside, a bit like a really psychedelic hippy version of Pompeii’s celebrated Masturbating Man.
Okay, JK Rowling isn’t exactly quaking in her boots at the arrival of The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne on the fantasy children’s story scene, but this simple half-narrative – backed up by Coyne’s illustration book of the same name and a travelling art installation featuring an actual king’s head you can climb inside – serves a solid purpose in focusing the Lips’ 15th album, previewed with a limited Record Store Day release. Recent Flaming Lips records have almost felt like radio-friendly floatation tanks – aimless limbos of psychedelic noise out of which drifts the occasional sci-fi melody, like a transcendental vision. Here, though, a child’s story is all it takes to tether the listener and give an arc and purpose to an album lighter than 2013’s ‘The Terror’ and sharper than 2009’s ‘Embryonic’ and 2017’s ‘Oczy Mlody’. We’ve always known The Flaming Lips were transporting us somewhere; here, at last, we’ve got a sense of where we’re going.
With narration from The Clash’s Mick Jones, who holds our hands through the spacier segments (glowering glitch symphony ‘Mother Universe’, and ‘Electric Fire’, the sumptuous ‘Dipped In Steel’ and ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’), we float between the actual songs in a story time reverie.
These tend to share a gossamer shimmer with ‘The Castle’ from ‘Oczy Mlody’, as though becoming a father has reconnected Coyne with his child-like wonder after several albums wrought with his rollercoasting relationships (one divorce, one remarriage inside his massive bubble). ‘The Sparrow’ is all synthetic choirs, crunching beats and more vocal reverb than God’s gullet. ‘Giant Baby’ tackles mortality head-and-heart on (“I could see my mother as she died”) in the style of a Clanger lullaby. ‘How Many Times’ is a blissed-out counting song with backing vocals by electronic gnomes and percussion, it seems, played on robot cats. Best of all, ‘All For The Life Of The City’, in which our massive regal hero meets his snowy end, is celestial Beatledelica as adorable as anything Coyne has ever pulled out of his big rainbow song-sack.
Though ‘The King’s Mouth’ is rumoured to be a Coyne solo album in all but name and a stop-gap before a further Lips album next year, it finds the band more playful, melodic, cinematic and cohesive than they have since ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’.
The solemn chop-pop joy of the thing is infectious – ‘Feedaloodum Beedle Dot’ has you frugging to the kind of Becksy groove that Gorillaz have been aiming for for decades, even as the kingdom’s mob descends on the giant’s corpse yelling “the king is dead / Let’s cut off his head!” And the final couplet of ‘Mouth Of A King’ and ‘How Can A Head’ are the kind of weightless psych-pop perfection that has become Coyne’s fractal-covered calling card. There’s little connection to the contemporary alt-pop world: The Flaming Lips float above and outside our dimension, in a bubble all their own. And after a decade of dark shades, it’s finally glowing primary colours again.