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The Flaming Lips’ terrific ‘King’s Mouth’ brings back ‘The Soft Bulletin’ spirit

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It’s been 20 years since The Flaming Lips released The Soft Bulletin, the instant classic that helped them make the transition from weirdo cult faves who made albums you needed four CD players to listen to, to being the confetti-shooting, giant-hamsterball-riding, phantasmagoric festival favorites they are now. They’ve made a lot of different records since, some even more popular (Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), some awesomely, terrifyingly psychedelic (Embryonic), some that feature Miley Cyrus or full covers of Pink Floyd albums. But none that have quite had the magic of The Soft Bulletin.

King’s Mouth has some of that magic. Released last weekend for Record Store Day, the album will get a proper wide release on July 19 and grew out of an interactive art installation of the same name the band made for their Oklahoma City art gallery, The Womb. It’s a concept album, a fantasy tale of a giant king who dies saving his people from an avalanche who then cut off his head to display as a tribute. Or something. It’s a very loose concept that still centers around very Soft Bulletin ideas like the unstoppable force of death, the infinite power of love and hope, and the vastness of the universe. The storyline is tied together by narration from Mick Jones of the Clash, whose easygoing, slightly sad delivery brings just the right touch to this fantastical tale.

Musically, King’s Mouth is very Soft Bulletin / Yoshimi —you know, orchestral space rock psych flower power pop. There may not be anything on here as immediate or as amazing as “Race for the Prize,” “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “Buggin'” or “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” but this album is a real grower and has stayed in my thoughts. The only song digitally released so far, “All for the Life of the City,” which falls right in the middle of the story — “The King saves the day…but the King dies today” — is the album’s most immediate, but it’s the song it segues into, “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot,” that comes closest to The Soft Bulletin‘s big drum orch-rock sound. It’s more of a coda than it’s own complete song, though, and King’s Mouth is all kinda like that, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

That said, there are so many great moments on this album. Side One-ender “Electric Fire” has great call-and-response from Jones’s low-key narration and Wayne’s multi-tracked harmonies (“Associated Regions!”, “Aurora Borealis!”) before going into another dimension of psychedelia (it was one of the pieces originally created for the installation). There’s also “How Many Times,” which is a classic Lips tale of not giving up despite the odds, and album closer “How Can a Head” is genuinely moving in a way that only the Flaming Lips can be, asking “How can a head hold so many things? All our life. All our love. All our songs we sing.” As someone who was obsessed with The Soft Bulletin in the summer of 1999, I am glad to have some of that spirit back in a new Lips record.

If you’re in NYC between now and the end of May, I highly recommend you head to Brooklyn’s Rough Trade to visit the King’s Mouth installation which is up through the end of May. You crawl through the mouth, into the head and stare up at the ceiling (don’t forget the prism glasses) for a highly psychedelic experience that is kind of like the vortex scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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