A quarter century later, does the band’s 1995 classic still stand as the “Pet Sounds for the 90s”?
The comparison was made either in a magazine adverti-sement, on a promo-tional card made for record store racks, or both, but memory clearly serves that some bright marketing spark claimed on its arrival in the early fall of 1995 that Clouds Taste Metallic was a Pet Sounds for the 1990s.
It seemed no coincidence of timing that MOJO magazine had just published their 100 Greatest Albums Ever Made issue only a month before, and Pet Sounds had come in at number one. This was back when such listicles weren’t thrown together every other day, and, despite its numerous flaws, the MOJO list had an air of credibility, and its placement of the Beach Boys’ crowning achievement at the top was a fair conclusion.
Most likely the ad line wasn’t asserting that the Flaming Lips’ new LP was the best album of the ‘90s, since the decade was only halfway over, but was remarking on its ambition, color and hummable melodies. It may have also been meant in a more literal-minded way. Within its first few songs, Clouds Taste Metallic paints a picture crammed full of cats, dogs, pigs, rats, bats, snakes, frogs, toads, gnats, cows, goats, roosters, bees, bugs, birds and, of course, this here giraffe. The fauna fanaticism comes full circle toward the end with the celebration of “Christmas at the Zoo.” If this wasn’t the Flaming Lips’ own Pet Sounds, then it had to at least be their Animals. So committed was the band to this theme that they can be seen walking in front of the same giant “ZOO” sign in the videos for both “Christmas at the Zoo” and “This Here Giraffe.”
VIDEO: The Flaming Lips “This Here Giraffe”
Despite that recurring imagery, Clouds Taste Metallic doesn’t really play out as a critter concept album, though there is plenty of room within its rubber walls for God and all of her creatures. Given the band’s long history of hallucinatory imagery, and the nature of their overdue breakout hit from a couple of years before, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the whimsical bends were the predictable part of the Flaming Lips’ seventh album. It was the serious depth that was starting to show underneath which was startling. “We were starting to get away from songs that were freaky but didn’t have any emotional content,” Lips ringleader Wayne Coyne told Spin in 2015 about Clouds. “As much as a song like “Psychiatric Exploration[s of the Fetus with Needles] ” is fun, there’s not an emotional thing in it. We were starting to have a desire for that to drive us with our music.”
This “emotional thing” arrives in the third verse of the third song, “Placebo Headwound.” After pondering where outer space ends and why birds always fly south, two of life’s big and basic wonders, Coyne delivers the gut punch: “And if God hears all my questions/Well how come there’s never an answer?” The question, a heartbreaker for anyone who can relate, seems to drop out of nowhere and the rest of the band crashes in for the last chorus. In a sense, this might be the exact moment in which the Flaming Lips who wrote “Waitin’ for a Superman” and “Do You Realize??” were born.
Clouds Taste Metallic remains the most pivotal album in the Flaming Lips’ catalogue, in that it was the point where the first era of the band ended and the second era began. It is neither their biggest selling nor their most critically acclaimed record, but it’s an inspired intersection where the end of the road meets the bridge to the future. Truth was starting to prove stranger than their affable acidhead fictions. The album’s trippy title came from an anecdote about a guy they knew of who had actually tasted a cloud. The back cover bears a photo of horizontal convective rolls that look like some kind of massive ten-fingered hand in the sky that is either waving or reaching out to grab you; above the picture is scrawled “these CLOUDS ARe REAL!!”
The Flaming Lips were one of a handful of bands, including Yo La Tengo and Guided by Voices, for whom perseverance on different rock fringes in the 1980s finally paid off in creative renaissances, and at least marginally increasing record sales, in the 1990s. (None of those three bands’ first albums are much to shout about, but their sevenths, Clouds Taste Metallic, Yo La Tengo’s Electr-o-pura and GBV’s Bee Thousand, all released within little more than a year of one another, certainly are.) Each of those groups had catalysts that pushed them onto invigorated paths. The Flaming Lips’ transformation was triggered by not one but two different guitarists who came in relatively quick succession, made their impression and went on their way. Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev was the first, steering the Lips’ In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head at the start of the decade, while Ronald Jones’ mark is all over the next two, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic.
Things could have easily fallen apart for the Flaming Lips in the middle of this time, but instead they went from strength to strength. The overlapping two-year tenures of Donahue and third drummer Nathan Roberts had ended in 1991, leaving original members Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins. In place of Roberts came Steven Drozd, ostensibly to play drums but quickly assuming a significant songwriting and multi-instrumentalist role. Some may have thought that Ronald Jones had big shoes to fill in replacing Donahue on guitar, but it turned out those shoes had to worry about fitting Jones.
Ronald Jones may be among rock’s more underrated guitarists, but not by the Flaming Lips themselves, even though he did seem to linger behind the others in band photos. Back in 2006, Drozd spoke to Ultimate Guitar about his esteem for Jones when he joined the band in ‘91. “To me, he was Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine meets Miles Davis or something,” said Drozd. Asked about Jones’ departure in that Spin interview, Coyne was highly complimentary but perhaps a little more guarded, citing the usual creative and personality differences while being admirably honest in noting that, “[Jones’] leaving wasn’t anything that we wanted; he decided to leave.” The quality of Jones’ playing was not in doubt to Coyne, but something in the chemistry of their creative processes wasn’t clicking in the same way it was for Coyne and Drozd. “So, it was beautiful but it was not easy.”
Drozd, however, made it sound like it was easy. “You’d get the main bits of the song down, the meat of it or whatever, and he would come in and just throw some stuff on it,” he said. “It would just take it to a whole different plane.” Even after all that time playing with Jones and seeing how the sausage was made, Drozd was no less inspired. “When I think of all the people whose guitar playing I admire, he is still at the top of the list…I still listen to those records and I’m like, ‘I’m not sure how he got that sound.’”
VIDEO: The Flaming Lips at Webster Hall NYC 1995
Because “She Don’t Use Jelly” and Transmissions from the Satellite Heart became the breakthrough, newcomer Jones had an important hand in the Flaming Lips’ sound as their audience rapidly expanded. One of the unconventional minor miracles about Clouds Taste Metallic is that while the band’s songwriting continued down the path of melodic refinement, not only did the guitars become more blasted and bulbed, but the frayed and fragile textures, such as on the twanging rush of “Kim’s Watermelon Gun” or the singed “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” were a clutch facet of that refinement. If there’s a key recurring feeling on the album that the guitars capture, it’s the anticipatory amp buzz that prods its pulse, from the opening abandon of “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” to “This Here Giraffe” and the surprisingly sweet and straightforward-ish “When You Smile.”
It makes sense within the skewed logic of the Flaming Lips that once they had reached a new peak as a rock band, they decided to stop thinking of themselves as one. Instead of replacing Jones and plowing forward as they had from Hit to Death to Transmissions, the band stepped back and resurveyed the land. This downshift didn’t help the momentum behind Clouds, which, despite good reviews and the placement of its very Beach Boys-esque closer “Bad Days” (quite possibly the impetus for the Pet Sounds comparison) on the pretty decent Batman Forever soundtrack, already hadn’t been selling as well as Transmissions.
The regrouping process and Zaireeka detour (the concept for that four-CD piece today feels dated yet still novel and intriguing) took some time, and when “Buggin” hit the radio in 1999 it sounded like the Flaming Lips hadn’t changed all that much in four years. Then came the rest of The Soft Bulletin and the deserved acclaim that followed. The only downside is that The Soft Bulletin went on to attain the fan-and-critic consensus that Clouds Taste Metallic could and should have received, and so Clouds got stuck between the version of the Flaming Lips who leapt from 120 Minutes to Beverly Hills 90210 and the new model Flaming Lips who traded their distortion pedals for keyboards and theremins.
But mammals running rampant, evil prevailing and all, Clouds Taste Metallic is still a poignant, heart-tugging listen, if not as intentionally so as The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Though there isn’t exactly a narrative throughline, there is a well-sequenced musical arc and more than enough imaginative storytelling in Coyne’s lyrics to give Clouds a concept vibe. “Christmas at the Zoo” and “Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World” could easily be turned into children’s books (the former may have even inspired some).
The Flaming Lips in this moment were still a rock band stretching for something higher and getting a faceful of the uncontainable.
AUDIO: The Flaming Lips Clouds Taste Metallic (full album)