Ever since they truly surpassed themselves with a pair of humane masterpieces in 4-disc freakfest 'Zaireeka' and the more accessibile 1999 triumph 'The Soft Bulletin', The Flaming Lips have had the unenviable task of keeping up with themselves. Though their last album 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots' was richly enjoyable, its bleepy production values caused it to sound rather of its time, while its two immediate predecessors remain incontrovertibly timeless. For the long-awaited 'At War With The Mystics', the band promised a return to a more organic sound. This is something they have largely delivered, but without diminishing the emphasis on production trickery and unusual arrangements. At its best, 'At War...' is fascinating and hypnotic, but it's also the least accessible and most schizophrenic Flaming Lips album for some time.
'At War...' cannot quite decide if it wants to be a purposeful regression back to the days when The Lips were quirky pop outsiders, or whether it wants to retain the meticulously crafted ambition of 'Yoshimi...'s' more melancholy moments. There are certainly familiar (and frequently unfashionably proggy) themes here - mortality, the overwhelming mystery of life, magic, wizards - but an over-arching concept is perhaps harder to discern. Uncut magazine, yet to print a full review, are already hailing it as the perfect encapsulation of Gram Parson's theory of 'cosmic American music'. After several listens, the album's peculiar splendour starts to reveal itself - but the sublime and emotive highlights are much more elusive than, say, 'Waitin' For A Superman' or 'Fight Test'.
There are some fine pop moments, which may be close relatives of Beck-doing-Prince on 'Midnight Vultures'. 'The WAND' is probably the best of these - ushered in by admirably fuzzy bass and a uniquely rousing chorus chant. 'Free Radicals' is rhythmically inventive, and offers the shock of Wayne Coyne attempting a seventies soul falsetto. 'It Overtakes Me' is great, uncharacteristically minimal and with another deceptively simple fuzz bass groove. Despite these, the opening 'The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song', with its wry analysis of the trappings of power, may well be the only obvious choice of single. Even this delivers a much starker sound.
This being a Flaming Lips album, it also contains its fair share of widescreen epics. The best of these is the double whammy of 'The Sound Of Failure/It's Dark...Is It Always This Dark', six or so minutes of music which luxuriate in a rich variety of sound textures. It's brilliantly arranged, with entrancing synths and endearing twangy guitars. Its bound to be a firm fan favourite as well, with its sly pop culture references to Britney and Gwen. 'Vein Of Stars' captures that familiar Lips melancholic uncertainty, but with greater emphasis on acoustic guitar strumming than in the past. The album's centrepiece, and least immediate track is 'My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion', a grandiose and emotive track that feels perhaps a little calculated in its intentions.
On 'Mr. Ambulance Driver' and closing track 'Goin' On', the album's sonic ideas are crystallised into compact epics. Wayne Coyne's voice is strangely muted on both, and the melodies are subtle, but both tracks are quietly touching. The latter provides a sophisticated closing note for the album and both tracks provide a satisfying escape from the more self-conscious expansiveness found elsewhere.
It's undeniably pleasing to hear the band moving away from the now over-familiar dynamics that characterise their work with producer Dave Fridmann - for the most part, the thunderous drums seem to have been consigned to the past. Most of 'At War...' is typically ambitious, robust and impressive - and it represents an admirable challenge to the rest of the rock mainstream. There are few other bands who follow their muse quite as doggedly as The Flaming Lips whilst simultaneously managing to sustain a still expanding audience. That it doesn't quite cohere into an innately brilliant whole as 'The Soft Bulletin' did is more a product of the band having too many ideas than too few.
Whilst many have already remarked that Morrissey sounds almost content on 'Ringleaders Of The Tormentors', this album places him in a remarkably similar position to that of The Lips, and sees him dealing with similar concerns (particularly a preoccupation with mortality). 'You Are The Quarry' not only re-established his pre-eminence but also elevated him to performer in Britain's enormodomes (why does Morrissey in Earl's Court still seem like an uncomfortable idea - despite the artist's undoubted cultural importance?) and as a consequence Morrissey now once again has to deal with the weight of expectation. He has certainly faced the challenge directly this time, relocating to Rome and drafting in Tony Visconti as producer, as well as an extra guitarist and songwriter in the shape of Jesse Tobias, perhaps hoping to produce something yet more ambitious and striking.
For those of us who feel the treatment handed out to Moz around the time of 'Southpaw Grammar' and 'Maladjusted' was somewhat unjustified (both albums had their merits), the pre-release hype hailing 'Ringleader...' as his very best work may well appear slightly nauseating. Even with its child choirs, portentous timpani and Ennio Morricone collaborations, it's not quite the fully-fledged Morrissey masterpiece some commentators have predicted. Like most of his other albums, the material is a mite variable. There is certainly one absolute positive, however - and that is that Morrissey is without a doubt in his best voice here and has clearly been striving hard to overcome his limited vocal range, without sacrificing a shred of his persona or character in the process. As a result, even the more generic tracks here have real bite.
The thematic focus on contentment and a newfound sexual forthrightness are probably founded mostly on 'At Last I Am Born', the album's dramatic closer. It's a brilliant song, enhanced by spaghetti western twang and military drum beats. It describes a liberation from the shackles of 'guilt because of the flesh', but not without some characteristically deadpan irony ('I used to think that time accentuates despair...but now I don't actually care!'). It's certainly a more inclusive and affecting finale than 'You Know I Couldn't Last', the extended whinge that concluded '...Quarry'.
Nevertheless, those that dismiss Morrissey as a tedious whinger (and therefore miss his humour!) will probably not be converted by most of 'Ringleader...'. 'The Youngest Was The Most Loved' is yet another song about a cherished child turning into a violent killer. It's crisp, and bolstered by a triumphant chorus, complete with slightly grating Italian child choir ('There is no such thing in life as normal!') but doesn't really deliver anything we haven't heard before. The album's other superb highlight, 'Dear God Please Help Me' discusses a range of sexual frustrations with determined frankness ('there are explosive kegs between my legs!'...ouch!), including being propositioned by someone of the same sex ('then he motions to me with his hand on my knee/Dear God did this kind of thing happen to you?') before concluding with 'spreading your legs with mine in between'. That the gender of the spreadee is not entirely clear will no doubt attract some familiar murmurings regarding Morrissey's sexuality, but this is all beside the point. 'Dear God...' is one of his most dramatic and intensely rendered performances and musically, it shows admirable restraint by holding back on the volume and producing an arrangement which swells rather than soars.
Elsewhere, there is a thunderous opener, 'I Will See You In Far Off Places', which makes rather more comfortable deployment of modern production values than the tepid synth strings and Dido-bongos of '..Quarry''s more frustrating moments. It's not particularly elaborate lyrically, but it has a nice line in contrasting bombast and foreboding with the promise of the 'far off places'. It's one of those list songs, essentially. First single 'You Have Killed Me' is Morrissey at his most infectious, and it already sounds like a pithy classic - with all the literate qualities we have come to expect from Moz. It namechecks Pier Paolo Pasolini ('Pasolini is me/Accatone, you'll be') before going on to reference Visconti (presumably Luchino, although it's amusing to note the more immediate presence of producer Tony) and Anna Magnani in the second verse. The lyrical theme is skeletal and characteristically stretched to complete the song, but it works well in this case. The chorus is innately hummable, and introduces vocal harmonies, something not usually heard on a Morrissey song and further evidence of his recent vocal development.
'On The Streets I Ran', 'I Just Want To See The Boy Happy', 'The Father Who Must Be Killed' and 'In The Future When All's Well' are crunchy rockers, with rather less musical depth than pre-release hype has suggested. Morrissey's vocals are full of conviction and brio, though, and the songs certainly rattle along. The latter particularly carries a weighty punch, although I can't help but suspect it's songs like this which lead people to dismiss Morrissey's band as workmanlike, usually unfairly.
The lingering impression of the album though is harboured in its slower-paced, more blatantly grandiose statements. 'Life Is A Pigsty' starts superbly, with a droning synth pad, off-kilter piano and loosely funky drum beat, initially sounding completely unlike anything Morrissey has attempted before. The melody meanders somewhat though, and the song then gives way completely to a more predictably epic sound. It's impressive, but perhaps all a little unmoving. 'I'll Never Be Anyone's Hero Now' is a frank lament, with a brilliant vocal performance that more than compensates for the slightly clunky arrangement.
'Ringleader...' comes complete with all the necessary constituents of a great Morrissey album, right down to song titles which border on self parody. Its highlights are commanding, and some of the best songs of the solo Morrissey canon. It doesn't quite sustain its qualities for its entire duration though. Whilst it largely dispenses with the more trivial production flourishes of '..Quarry' (and also with that album's propensity for pot shots at rather obvious targets), it doesn't quite attain the rather grand heights to which it so clearly aspires. The preoccupations with sex and death certainly add different (if not entirely new) dimensions to Morrissey's poetic oeuvre, but there is also a nagging sense that since his period of exile, some of his distinctively British social satire has been lost. This may well be explained by those accusations of racism following Finsbury Park and 'The National Front Disco', but if there's a next time, it would be great if he could couple his now indisputably iconic persona with some more witty observations again.