American Head by The Flaming LipsRelease date: September 11, 2020
Label: Bella Union
When I first read a comment from Simon Raymonde that the new record from Oklahoma’s The Flaming Lips, was one of their three best albums, I was immediately salivating at the prospect. Entitled American Head, the band’s sixteenth studio album has arrived into a world of intense doom and gloom, so an on form Flaming Lips is just what we need. We all know about the majesty of their crossover album The Soft Bulletin, but that was released over 20 years ago and since then, the band have descended album by album into territories that I couldn’t wait to get out of. The run of albums from 2009’s Embryonic through to last years’ King’s Mouth found Wayne Coyne and company gleefully subvert with an insistence that sounds were way more important than melody. There were hints mind you, on Oczy Mlody and King’s Mouth, that the band might be thinking of returning to former glory.
The theme throughout the album revolves around the band trying to imagine how Tom Petty (and band) would have sounded if he had hooked up with Coyne’s older brother’s biker/drug dealer buddies. The band tried to hear the songs as the lost sessions from Tom recording whilst high, but not sound like The Heartbreakers. They wanted to try to change their mind set as to be a different version of The Flaming Lips, with the key element being to sound like a 7 piece ensemble American band. Enlisting Dave Fridmann as producer once again, the band sound as good as ever and this time round, have decided that melody is well, kind of important too.
Opening with the sumptuous ‘Will You Return/When You Come Down’, a song infused with tragedy with several references to dead friends. However, there are marvellous layered harmonies and a myriad of wondrous sounds that pop up sporadically. Despite the grave tones of the lyrics the music spins into a gloriously uplifting section of swooping guitars and strings and maybe the lyrics “will you return when you come down?” are a challenge to a higher power to come sort us all out as the world implodes. ‘Watching the Lightbugs Glow’ is a downbeat track weirdly dropped into second place that finds Kacey Musgraves vocalising with no lyrics to mesmerising effect. It’s so sad and hopeless that it places you right into the middle of an apocalyptic wasteland.
‘Flowers Of Neptune 6’ was the first song to herald the direction this album might take and ever since hearing it my legs have been trembling in anticipation. Familiar bombastic drums boom and blast as Wayne spins out some aching tales about friends going to war or off the rails. The video finds Wayne hold his head in distress and ask “Oh my God, why is it them?” and it was powerful imagery to view given how this year has been progressing. Kacey Musgraves appears again for some beautiful backing vocals and the whole thing is just utterly spellbinding.
Quite simply, ‘Dinosaurs On The Mountain’ is one of The Flaming Lips finest songs, the (achingly beautiful) chorus of which has the ability to reduce me to tears ON EVERY PLAY, such is the immense emotion in Wayne’s voice. The perfect sequence of chords and notes oozes you into a better place. Wayne sings “Things could have been so great, but now I think it’s too late”, a lyric that carries such weight in these troubled times. The opening quartet of songs yield such emotional power and melodic richness that there had to come a point when there would be some sort of side track into recent sonic experimentation and it comes in the form of the still brilliant but not as obviously so ‘At The Movies On Quaaludes’.
The melancholic ‘Mother I’ve taken LSD’ is a confessional song but shows no regret about trying to get yourself away from sadness to a better place. With more references to lost friends gone to war, the story that accompanies the PR helps you understand and appreciate the lyrical themes of the album. I suspect Wayne’s Mom will forgive his foray into the world of hallucinogenic drugs. This is another song that will completely destroy you with the layered strings and harmonies that are simply heart breaking.
There’s a nod to the last few albums on ‘Brother Eye’ with some morse code bleeps and creeped out robotic vocals. ‘You n Me Sellin’ Weed’ is a tender ditty about dealing drugs and skipping out the humdrum of regular living. In Wayne’s world of fascination with escape and using mind bending products to do it, there’s an alarmingly safe feeling to being out of control. He makes everything seem ok. I guess as a responsible parent with kids to care for, I find how I absorb this album a different approach than I would have back when The Soft Bulletin came out.
As someone whose Mother departed from them many years ago, any reference to Mothers can hit hard and I think that is why I find solace in a song like ‘Mother Please Don’t Be Sad’ when things are tough. Wayne Coyne could sing the telephone book and bring a tear to a stone such is the emotion in his voice, which is in incredible form throughout this album. The arrangements are also impossibly brilliant and every listen throws up new sounds and melodies. This song is like a modern day Sergeant Pepper’s track, completely self-indulgent but absolutely spectacular.
‘When We Die When We’re High’ definitely could have appeared on one of their last few records, an instrumental of booming beats and spooky xylophones and fucked up sounds. Y’see kids, them there drugs don’t always make you feel good. As the album winds to a close, following up the previous track with the edgy ‘Assassins of Youth’ (although it has a lovely chorus), can find your attention wander a little if digesting the album in one sitting.
‘God and the Policeman’ is a duet with the amazing Kacey Musgraves, whose voice is as honey toned as Karen Carpenter. Chucking song structure out the window the song tears at the heart especially when Kacey sings “you did what anyone would have done”. As the past catches up with our protagonist, the song speaks of forgiveness and you don’t realise that what you have just heard would be horrendous in the hands of any other artists. With Coyne and company, it’s gorgeous.
Finally ‘My Religion Is You’ ends the album on another high note. Singing “I don’t need no religion, you’re all I need. You’re the thing I believe in, nothing else is true, my religion is you”, is Wayne referring to the oft mentioned drugs? Is it a person or, as I am going to think of it, the fans who love his music and more importantly his outlook.
This album has come at exactly the right time. The world, and in particular, The United States of America, is going to hell in a hand cart. In no order of hideousness, Covid-19, racial intolerance and injustice, riots, climate change, countries on the brink of war, wildfires, more riots, not to mention the complete bastards that we’re supposed to call “leaders”. Listening to American Head makes me feel a comfort that it is hard to put into words. It may raise anxiety at times with some of the references in there and the aching strings can veer too far into the zone marked “don’t go there!” but the overall feeling is one of love and tolerance and respect and warmth. Wayne says that “the music and songs that make up the album are based in a feeling. A feeling that, I think, can only be expressed through music and songs. We were, while creating it, trying to NOT hear it as sounds, but to feel it.” Mission accomplished. I can unequivocally say that American Head is the finest album The Flaming Lips have recorded and is completely and utterly vital to get you through this shit show called life.