No one combines sawmill-roar noise, dying-planet sadness and mad-scientist glee with the heartfelt sincerity of The Flaming Lips. In return, the music world writes Wayne Coyne and his fellow Oklahomans a blank creative check, which they cash with sonic shenanigans that should leave a big, unruly mess but instead reliably yield something endearingly sweet. Amid all their gratuitous drug references and onstage theatrics, the Lips can shape chaos into emotionally comprehensible order in a way that’s uniquely their own, no matter how thoroughly they pillage classic rock’s bathroom cabinet.
Here, they put that good will to daredevil use on a collaborative album that combines tracks from vinyl EPs recorded and released last year with other co-op cuts. The opening track, “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded),” pulls off an unlikely trick, uniting Ke$ha’s bad-girl drunk-pop with the Lips’ psychedelic noise in a one-chord dance jam that takes an unexpected turn into Strawberry Fields territory before circling back to where it spastically started. “Ashes in the Air,” meanwhile, spoofs Bon Iver but with Bon Iver’s actual participation on falsetto vocals. Like many of the duets on the album, its phantasmical balladry is violently interrupted by gusts of distortion, feedback and other baloney.
The influence of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” drifts like a specter throughout Heady Fwends: The Tame Impala collabo, “Children of the Moon,” echoes it via kindred acoustic guitar strum and cosmic dada lust, while on the self-descriptive, Lightning Bolt-assisted “I’m Working at NASA on Acid” Coyne floats in his tin can until it blasts off, descends back to earth, and then buoys away again to be reconfigured with Neon Indian in “Is David Bowie Dying?” The clincher is the slo-mo rendition of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”: Erykah Badu sings the Robert Flack-popularized standard an echo-laden childlike soprano even more spaced-out than her usual croon, and the Lips send her off like a helium balloon into a cotton candy cosmos. There’s the strong suggestion that, like Bowie’s Major Tom, she may never return to Earth.