Once upon a time, before they ruled the iPods of 30-year-old graphic artists and coffeeshop baristas everywhere, the Black Lips were cruddy for real. Before the world tours and the proposed energy drink and the controversies both calculated and fabricated, the Lips were equal parts garage-punk hopefuls and walking disasters. And they were worth rooting for, for both those reasons.
That isn't to suggest you had to be there back in the good old days, because, frankly, the good old days were a bit of a mixed bag, especially if you were the Black Lips. The bandmembers' reputation for antics, both on- and offstage — employing a penis as a guitar pick, ingesting a spectrum of bodily fluids, leaving fecal gifts in their wake — were far bigger draws than the music. The Lips instantly became the guys you went to see just in case something stupid happened, as it often did.
The Black Lips got over on sheer attitude and direct inspiration. Though shoddy, their fractured goulash of garage scuzz, brown-acid psych, and ugly lumps of doo-wop worked. In an industry where the robots generally come out on top, they were the type of shitty you ultimately embraced for the warts-and-all-ness. Their music, too artless for strict garage revivalists and not nearly rote enough for traditional punk, was honest expression-by-explosion. It was also proof positive that three chords are sometimes one too many.
But even simpletons go to school, and so it is that bands also have to grow up, especially when clubs fear that the singer might take a dump on the greenroom sofa. So the Lips pulled up their pants, traded in the X-rated behavior for PG-13 clowning, and got busy. They toured incessantly and released four albums of varying sloppiness, winning a wider swath of the proletariat each time around. With 2007's Good Bad Not Evil, they announced what we had already suspected on occasion: that they were capable of delivering an entire album's worth of catchy, tuneful material. They were a calculating band with commercial appeal.
That makes the new 20 Million Thousand all the more curious. The group has retreated into the garage, employing the low-fi/no-fi ethic and taking an artistic approach that's positively peculiar in light of the previous album. With its lazy enunciation, general caterwauling, and casual studio "mistakes," 20 Million wants us to believe that, suddenly, the Black Lips are musical dimwits again. The entire exercise is as awkward as it is forced, reeking of a self-consciousness that suggests the thread has somehow been lost.
The genre-bending psychosis the Lips' earlier albums employed has been replaced by the proverbial throw-it-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks mania. There are nods to the New York Dolls ("Drugs"), 13th Floor Elevators ("Big Black Baby Jesus of Today"), and even a fair approximation of the Brian Jonestown Massacre ("Old Man"). Though they don't spend the entire record peering backward, the Black Lips stay busy looking all around them, jumping genres and hop-scotching moods, desperately trying to find anything that might bond in your dome. They aren't telling you who they are nearly as much as they seem to be asking, "Who would you like us to be?"
In what should have been a return to form, the Black Lips instead prove you can't always go home again — at least, not without sounding completely befuddled by the process. Once upon a time, the Black Lips were cool because they were cruddy, but honest. Now they're just using cruddy as a way to be cool.