Between their live record Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo and the recently released, fourth studio effort Good Bad Not Evil, the Black Lips gained something of a reputation. The Atlanta band's live antics and work ethic were well-publicized (as is most everything else on Vice Records). But even if Los Valientes, ostensibly recorded in Tijuana, was deliberate PR, it found the group in a compellingly transitional stage, reworking a big chunk of their breakthrough LP, Let It Bloom. Their first three albums, released on Bomp! and In The Red, were the sound of a band with more songwriting chops than they let on. If every available surface in songs like “Ghetto Cross” from We Did Not Know The Forest Spirit Made The Flowers Bloom and “Hippie Hippie Hoorah” from Let It Bloom is cloaked in the swampy miasma of deliberate underproduction, Good Bad Not Evil opener “I Saw A Ghost (Lean)” creeps like cough syrup without the aid of raunchy hiss.
This doesn’t mean that the band’s pointedly working-class anti-aesthetic gets replaced by professional sheen; Good Bad Not Evil is easily as bugged-out as its predecessors, and far from the kind of lifestyle record their labelmates put out. The album's moments of schticky nonsense ("How Do You Tell A Child Someone Has Died," "Transcendental Light") are tiresome, but they’re surrounded by such good rock songs that they wind up being equally rewarding. It’s a little baffling at first to hear the band try on two sizes of ill-fitting country, but it’s worth keeping in mind that, in the band’s logic, it’s better to be meaningless than to try too hard to put your message over; this explains why the album’s most disposable tracks deal with their most directly personal subject matter yet.
The same sense of self-deprecation is at the center of two of the album’s catchiest tracks: “O! Katrina,” a spurned-lover ode to the hurricane, and “Bad Kids,” a swipe at the band’s own “lovable fuckup” image. The songs risk topicality (the latter even featuring social commentary in its call-and-response verses: “Don’t try / To give us pills / Oh wait / Give us all the pills / Don’t cry / Mommy’s got to go to court / Dad won’t / Pay the child support”) because they’re both substantially about something else entirely: being a spectator. It’s a deliberate feint, and it functions in part as an attempt to nip their own myth in the bud, or at least anticipate the morons who take them (or something like Vice, for that matter) at face value. It also clears the ground for the album’s most complete achievement, the post-apocalyptic, paranoid “Cold Hands.” While most of the songs on the album have a lyrical double (“Slime & Oxygen” and “Veni Vidi Vici,” for example, boil down to the same basic idea but get there in very different ways), “Cold Hands” is an unrelenting parade of Robitussin-induced imagery (e.g., “cankered brains”) and an indelible melody that, in true Black Lips fashion, only gives itself away as such with great resistance.