The Flaming Lips – “Zaireeka” (1997)

June 24, 2009 at 3:00 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles, The Flaming Lips)

Perhaps the most bewildering, inscrutable, maddening and brilliant (?) album to ever be unleashed upon the world, Zaireeka is a 4-CD album that is meant to be played on 1, 2, 3, or preferably 4 stereos simultaneously, in order to hear every piece of the puzzle. I’ve only been able to ever play 2 of the CDs at one time and even in that limited capacity the album was a mind-blowing experience. Wayne Coyne took The Lips to a new height with this album and has never looked back since then.  
This review comes from Keith Cameron in the Jan. 3, 1998 issue of the longtime British mag
New Musical Express… 


In the realm of musicological discourse, the term ‘genius’ has been overused virtually to the point of obsoletion. So it bears stating at the outset that with Zaireeka the Flaming Lips are threatening to reinvest the notion with its original resonance. Clouds Taste Metallic from 1995 found these fecund Oklahoman zonk rockers pondering, “Where does outer space end?,” before somewhat inevitably concluding, “It’s sorta hard to imagine.” Well, Zaireeka is the sound of grown men trying so hard to get their heads around the rudiments of astrophysics that in the process they flipped out and invented nothing less than a new way to listen to music.

Here is an album comprising four CDs, each containing the composite parts of the same eight songs. Thus, in order to hear the songs in their entirety, you need four separate CD players playing simultaneously. Okey-dokey. 

Clearly, this provides the average Lip-loving household with a major logistical problem. Unless you have unlimited access to a large indoor car park plus three mates with in-car CD players (Zaireeka was inspired by head Lip Wayne Coyne’s ‘Parking Lot Experiments,’ where up to 50 cars played specifically arranged tapes in unison) or can afford to hire a club with four separate PAs, the obvious solution it to invite aforementioned three mates round to your place, ensuring they bring their hi-fi systems as well as some beer, and make an evening of it. 

Indeed, Zaireeka‘s bizarre format seems at least partly motivated by a desire to introduce the notion of audience participation to the hitherto relatively passive practice of playing an album. The thing is, once you’ve counted everyone in and hit those start buttons together, you’ll be glad of the company of those helping hands. For even by the Flaming Lips’ synapse-searing standards Zaireeka is a titanic bedazzled trip to the furthest reaches of the imagination. The song titles alone betray the presence of visionaries: ‘Okay I’ll Admit That I Don’t Really Understand’;’ The Train Runs Over the Camel But Is Derailed By the Gnat’; ‘The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now.’ But it’s ‘Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)’ which most immediately repays the effort required to actually hear. Guitars soar overhead like parabolic tracer bullets (CDs one and three) as a heartbeat emits slowly from CDs two and four, which also provide ghostly, distorted echoes of the main themes. According to Coyne’s sleevenotes (copious, useful, highly entertaining) the song concerns a man who imagines he’s a secret agent on his way to save the world on a futuristic train, during the course of which he believes that the pressure is too much and he goes insane. The man is shocked that he could fantasize so vividly and he screams – loudly, out of all four CDs at around 3mins 20secs. 

Granted, on paper this sounds messy and mighty pretentious, but in the sensurround flesh it feels unprecedented, like Sun Ra conducting The Beatles in 1967 with orchestral arrangements from Brian Wilson and a teenage Neil Young on vocals. Only with bigger amps and much, much better than that could possibly ever be. 

What’s more, every time it gets played Zaireeka will sound different. Or that’s Coyne’s theory, anyway. he reckons that although they get close, CD players don’t play in absolute synchronisation with each other. Thus, subtle variations and new arrangements appear at every session. And while it would be possible to listen to just one CD at a time and get a passable interpretation of each song, without the extraneous noises – in the case of the lavish Disney-esque ballad ‘The Big Ol’ Bug…’, the sounds of Wayne’s dogs in his backyard – the ever-evolving collage is incomplete. There’s even one track, ‘How Will We Know? (Future Crashendos)’, featuring ultra-high and low frequencies on three CDs which “can cause a person to become disoriented, confused or nauseated” (it does), and should not be listened to “by infants” or “while driving.” Just imagine the carnage it would cause if listened to by infants while driving…mad, you say? The maddest aspect of Zaireeka is surely that a Time Warner company sanctioned its creation in the first place. That and the fact that the Flaming Lips have released arguably their most beautiful music in a vivid new design for listening and ensured that relatively few people shall hear it. to reiterate: a work of genius.

Keith Cameron

Permalink Leave a Comment