Album Reviews

The Flaming Lips – American Head

(Bella Union) UK release date: 11 September 2020


The Flaming Lips - American HeadWayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips‘ music has long been complex, often riddled with drug-induced experiences, or delving into emotional states. And it has rarely disappointed, for Coyne remains one of those rarest of charismatic individuals that can captivate, fascinate and hold attention for eternity if need be, his aura being compellingly magnetic.

American Head is the latest addition to a mind-boggling catalogue stretching back almost 35 years, and it’s apparently the first time they’ve created something that looks at themselves as being Americans rather than just beings from wherever. Nor is it a simpleton’s playground, for here is another thought provoking episode centred on the somewhat bonkers theme that runs through the album.

It runs a bit like this: Tom Petty during his early 1970s rounds that included a stopover at Coyne’s Oklahoma, but what would happen if Petty had been ‘fucked up’ after buying drugs off the local bikers and had then tried recording songs in this addled state? No one will ever know, but this is what’s also being attempted here, which is clearly either completely wacky, a touch of sheer genius or just being mused through boredom amid searches for originality. Possibly a bit of each. And if all that wasn’t enough, then it’s also been “based in a feeling” – around the switch that happens in life when realisation sets in that it’s not all about you, and suddenly it dawns on you how important all these other figures in your life actually are.

Single and album closer My Religion Is You is one of several twinkly melodic highlights, but this isn’t about a specific religion. Rather it’s about whatever it is that gets you through the hard times – your personal religion. And despite there being undoubted similarities between these melodic moments on American Head, they all demand attention equally. The soothing, gorgeous Flowers Of Neptune 6 is another, its vocal harmonies sublime during divine tranquillity whilst acoustic touches and spacey blips adorn the delightful Brother Eye, where the rhetorical question “Can you live forever?” is asked. God And The Policeman sees a stunning vocal duet between Coyne and Kacey Musgraves take centre stage. Opener Will You Return, When You Come Down is another melodically perfect cut as the psychedelics hint at Pink Floyd, though while this bleeds through into the following track Watching The Lightbugs Glow, the non-lyrical, female vocal combined with the Floydian feel inevitably leaves you with a poor man’s The Great Gig In The Sky.

There’s much sorrow on show, from the opener that states “All your friends are dead” to the pleading for forgiveness on maternal pairing Mother Please Don’t Be Sad where Coyne cries, “I didn’t mean to die tonight” and Mother I’ve Taken LSD, where he admits, “I thought it would free me but now I think it’s changed me” – well, no shit. And the depressive state of the album is not just apparent, it’s occasionally too much, as if it’s basically all about searching for a better existence, one which can only be achieved if you’re either taken away by a spaceman or you resort to drugs to take you away instead, like these are the only ways out.

Elsewhere, Dinosaurs In The Mountain, rather like a sore thumb to much of the other material here, was inspired by family trips when Coyne was a child where the trees would be imagined to be the extinct creatures lurking in the dark, as well as being helped along by a friend’s son asking why they don’t write a song about dinosaurs. Melodically sound again, it’s a little too, albeit fittingly, childlike.

Comparisons with the band’s classic – and probably most loved – album, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, have been bandied about regarding American Head, but that’s largely just hype. But it is sonically much closer to their defining album rather than, for example, The Terror from 2013. And whilst it’s not quite in the same league as many of The Flaming Lips’ albums – not just The Soft Bulletin – it has plenty of worthy moments that can blossom in time.


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