BUY THIS MUSIC

Sorry for the abject tardiness of this post. Last week I used all my limited brainpower to finish a long, labyrinthine screenplay draft for a deadline that wrapped me up like a douche in the middle of several long nights. And then there was the monster known as Halloween weekend to battle in a losing cause…

Finally, two days before our next post, I finally have the stamina and attention to cover the Flaming Lips’ At War With the Mystics. This probably was the best thing after all, since the album needs no additional words of explanation. Everything it thinks, it means, it’s about is already expressed inside. It’s a closed set. A Pandora’s box of riddles and rhymes. This is why we chose it for Halloween. Sometimes the scariest thing in the world is simply looking up and pondering the universe. It was when you were a kid, and it’s still that way…

At War With the Mystics concludes a Wagnerian-like trilogy for the Lips that began with 1999’s lauded The Soft Bulletin and continued through 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The albums were unified in a sound— a trio enhanced by tricky and inventive production sounds by Steven Drozd— and vision— challenging, poetic themes collected in spectacularly moving and poignant songs that envision a cycle narrating man’s dystopic relationship to the world around him in The Soft Bulletin (“Feeling Myself Disintegrate”); to a heroic embrace of real love in Yoshimi… (“Do You Realize?...) to, finally, his perilously small place in the cosmos as a mortal man.

Coming at the end of the cycle, with themes of universal awareness and a scope as large as the Milky Way itself, At War With the Mystics is necessarily the darkest of the three, with many songs about Death, War, and the Insignificance of Self. But it is heavy lightness, after all, like the theories of the great German philosopher, Schopenhauer, or a gay monk arisen from deep meditation.

It’s darkness provides it utter humanness. What I embrace about the record is its ability to contrast sweeping, epic-rock themes about the heavens and the stars, with extremely personal and moving songs like “Mister Ambulance Driver,” which begins with the actual 911 ambulance dispatch for lead singer’s Wayne Coyne’s own mother, who died during the making of this record.

The brutal intimacy contrasts with the scary-lush prog-rock orchestrations of heady wonders like “It Overtakes Me,” which starts as a buoyant, rocking exclamation of joy and shifts tones on a dime to a sudden sense of frightened helplessness, that is utterly real and affecting.

“Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung,” my favorite cut on the record (along with “Vein of Stars”), has the whole history of prog-rock (Gong, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, etc.) behind it as it takes man’s central tragic dilemma and turns it into an ancient, eternal race against the inevitable, with the indelible image of young lovers holding hands, trying to outrun the sudden doom plunging like helltide on top of them…

They are locked, as we are, in that image, running, breathless, doomed. Just as Yeats’ “chinamen” are locked climbing toward their "little halfway house" beneath a lotus in “Lapis Lauzil” or Keats’ Nightingale is forever singing in its tree.

We are all that couple running from the volcano, reaching out against our fear for a hand to hold, for a few moments only, until our doom engulfs us…

As Above, so Below,” says the Green Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus— the basic truth for all wisdom traditions since the Middle Ages. And the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “Atman in Brahman.” The Great God and the Small God are one. Jesus and the Father. God is Love. These are basic teachings that do not require years of devoted canonical study. Perhaps that is what the title of the record means.

Or perhaps it means just the opposite. The narrator of the record finds himself at war with the truths the “Mystics” know, unable to accept their hard lessons and difficult truths. He rages against the universal law, a brave but ultimately tiny nameless creature, until an act supremely personal, supremely intimate brings wisdom, acceptance and grace: a biting career failure, a shudder when counting infinite stars, a mother riding to the hospital in an ambulance, an oxygen mask obliterating her face…

At War With the Mystics dropped to much fanfare in early April of ’06. I remember it as a summer album, rocking out to tracks like “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and “The W.A.N.D.” But it wasn’t until the seasons turned to Autumn that I heard something deeper in it.

As the first anniversary of my father’s death approached, I listened with wet eyes as Wayne drove his mother to the hospital, wondering why she goes but its impossible for him. That someone so close can suddenly be ripped away on such a completely different path…

I felt the same as I held my dad’s hand on his hospital bed. Clutched his fist in mine as I saw with my mind’s eye a black gaping hole sever the middle of the sheets. I felt him tumble down the hole, the weight in my arm as I held on… As he began to slide, for a split second of conscious memory, I knew the urge to slide in with him. To hold his hand into the other side. To remain joined as allies, confidants and friends. To have the black hole cover up above and be safe with him in the unknown death to come.

I wasn’t afraid then. But I didn’t fall. He slipped away with a last miraculous, marveling sigh that touched the hearts of everyone in the room with magic. And then he was gone. And there was no draft from any open door.

This November, several weeks from now, will be the fourth anniversary of that moment. I still cling to my father on the other side, my hand icy and heavy with the dead caress. And sometimes in a panic at night I awake, reaching into the blackness, clasping desperately for… nothing.

But in these moments, I know I am a Child of God, a Child of Love, a human being. And then I go out into the night in front of my building, and the my mother the moon embraces me with her light. And the stars shine faintly behind her, like a brilliant train, and I am collected into a stronger arm. And I am folded into the kindest urge of eternity.

 

THE FLAMING LIPS AT WAR WITH THE MYSTICS, 2006, Warner Bros.