In the grand tradition of double albums, Embryonic — the Lips’ 12th freaking studio full-length — is perplexing, difficult to categorize, and yes, maybe a little bloviated. Colder critics might take a scalpel to a few of the album’s 18 tracks: Some of the extensive experimental noodling (much of it found in the five-song astrological-sign-themed suite scattered throughout) will surely not stand up to repeated listening, but the band hasn’t sounded this heavy or weird since they guest starred on 90210. Can-as-fronted-by-Kraftwerk opener “Convinced of the Hex” sets the tone — the band has mostly abandoned the conventional pop structures they’ve been warping since The Soft Bulletin in favor of intentionally imperfect sketches of ideas, atmospheres, or interesting sounds. “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” rides a similarly mechanic beat to a future that might pass for the setting of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 3,” if Wayne Coyne’s dejected voice left any hope of fighting back. Here, as throughout most of the album, the psychedelia is murky and oppressive. “Evil” is a slow, regret-filled dirge broadcast over a malfunctioning short-wave, and “See the Leaves” buzzes like an acid nightmare in which the cruel realities of existence are scarier than any fire-shitting pterodactyls.
The title of disc two’s opening track, “The Ego’s Last Stand,” should give you the idea. “I Can Be a Frog,” featuring a literally phoned-in guest spot from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O imitating animals and tornadoes, sounds on paper like the kind of childish goof that ruined At War With the Mystics, but the emotional distance in the execution betrays some real sadness. Fans who came to the band via that “Do You Realize??” Mitsubishi commercial will be confused and maybe even angry, but Embryonic is a strange, unsettling, wonderful, and welcome surprise for anyone who’s always preferred Clouds Taste Metallic to Yoshimi. — Jeremy Martin