This morning as I was driving the kids to school, I switched off the Dan Zanes cd that my daughter loves and turned on Peace Sword, the 2013 EP from the Flaming Lips that’s inspired by the film, Ender’s Game. I love Dan Zanes, but I just couldn’t take any more. My daughter, protesting, asked derisively, “Who’s this?” My son and I both exchanged knowing glances and he shouted, “Pink Floyd!”
I’m going to begin with a passage from Peace Sword. Of course there are many other places to begin. The Lips have entered their fourth decade making music and over the course of that time they have transmogrified, meaning transformed in a magical manner, from a weird art punk band from Oklahoma City that wrote songs about giraffes and abandoned hospital ships and Jesus on heroin to a cultish band of improvisers, tricksters, interrogators and searchers that still resides in Oklahoma City and ponders life’s big questions: Why are we here? How can we be good? Why does evil exist? Can good triumph over evil? And, How can we fully love?
Peace Sword, a fine and lovely six-song cd, is classic post-Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) with is driving synthesizers, pedaling bass lines that lift the music up above our heads and all that played against the simply-strummed acoustic guitar chords that keeps it all within our reach. The Flaming Lips are best when they are operating within the binaries of human behavior and oscillating between opposites: fear and ease, love and hate, terror and bliss. Peace Sword does that throughout all six songs, sometimes changing emotional equilibrium across a few measures within the same song. They bring you to a place where you feel uplifted and expansive and then a buoyant drum beat slowly falls apart, a soaring synthesizer quietly disappears and a soft, lonely voice emerges to express loss, remorse or fear.
The second to last song on the EP, “Think Like a Machine, Not a Boy,” begins with an keening synthesizer that sounds like a melodic ambulance siren. Then a slightly reverbed acoustic guitar strums some major chords and Wayne Coyne begins singing about a mind that’s been “poisoned by your lies,” and that has been made “violent and strong.” This mind, though, resists this education into violence and plaintively wishes,
The beauty that surrounds me
The gentleness of love
I wish I could go back
And be a boy
The song ends with Coyne repeating “the beauty that surrounds me” three times before the synthesizers quiet down, the drum beat stops and the machine comes to a halt.
I have listened to this song upwards of 50 times and the best way to describe “Think Like a Machine, Not a Boy,” is to say that it’s not the kind of song that you can walk away from with a neutral mind. Just like you can’t walk away from a beautiful man or woman, or maybe even a fresh plate of sushi, without feeling a spasm of regret and longing. When everything in this song closes up and goes away, you are left wondering, longing, worrying and hoping. And this is important because that is what makes a great pop song in the same way it’s what makes a great poem, film or work of art. It pulls you in, messes you up a little bit inside and then turns you loose as you beg for more.
I get a similar feeling when I read the Irish poet, Eamon Grennan. In particular, I respond to one of his poems, “Pause,” in a similar way to “Think Like a Machine, Not a Boy.” The narrator of the poem is a father peeking out the front door window as his daughter emerges from the school bus that has just dropped her off at the end of a school day. She “hurries through silence and snow grass,” and bursts through the front door, her voice immediately “filling every crack” of the home. As the narrator touches his daughter hello and then picks up her coat he quietly reflects,
In the pause before all this happens, you know something
about the shape of the oife you’ve chosen to live
between the silence of almost infinite possibility and that
explosion of things as they are—those vast unanswerable
intrusion of love and disaster, or just the causal scatter
of your child’s winter clothes on the hall floor.
And while The Flaming Lips are writing science fiction and Grennan is writing about the marvelous in the quotidian, both force us into a position, a way of seeing and feeling that makes us appreciative.
Beyond all that, though, listening to The Flaming Lips is a physical, visceral experience because when you listen to The Flaming Lips something really weird and wonderful happens to you and it’s this: the music goes right through you. Yes. It does. The music enters your body where it first makes contact, is absorbed by all of your pores, zips through your blood vessels, pumps through your heart, down through your lungs, pounds around your belly and intestines, plummets down to your lower extremities, bounces back up and then explodes out the top of your head. If you ever listen to The Flaming Lips and this does not happen, something is seriously wrong with you and you should go see a doctor immediately or just go back to listening to James Taylor.