It’s been a while since the Flaming Lips have returned to their classic formula of song-driven alternative psych-rock. King’s Mouth, an elaborate concept LP featuring spoken-word narration from the Clash’s Mick Jones, is, in some senses, a back to basics return to form for the group. There are a few moments of unexpectedly traditionalist beauty: the album’s lovely closing one-two punch of “Mouth of the King” and “How Can a Head” finds frontman Wayne Coyne falling back in love with the type of minimalist songcraft and plainspoken question-seeking that the band crystallized during their turn-of-the-century heyday. “All For the Life of the City,” on the other hand, is a stuttering pop earworm with bright production and easy melody anchored with a simple descending bass line.
But King’s Mouth, with its slow-moving songscapes and disruptive spoken word meditations, can also make for an arduous listen. Coyne’s conceptual story, alongside an accompanying art installation and an illustrated book, may very well illuminate the record’s narrative about about power, death, kingdoms and sacrifice.
But as a stand-alone piece of music, its pacing tends to remain too static to uphold its heavy premise. The best songs arrive far too late, and early tracks like “How Many Times” and “Giant Baby” can be hard to distinguish from recent Coyne experiments like 2017’s Oczy Mlody. It’d be a mistake to expect the band, which has undergone a series of lineup changes and stylistic evolutions over the past decade, to try to recreate any of the genre-bending magic from classic LP’s like The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. But for a group whose secret weapon was always sturdy songcraft, the bona fide old-school highlights on King’s Mouth tend to come too far and few between.