With sixteen official studio albums and any number of collaborations, curios and side-projects, The Flaming Lips always seem in danger of spreading themselves a bit too thin. The full list of endeavours is long, fascinating and infuriating but to give a taster we’ve had a live 24-hour-long improvised song, music delivered via a gummy skull, full-on track-by-track cover versions of ‘The Stone Roses’ debut, ‘Sgt. Peppers…’ and ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and the obligatory Christmas album recorded under an alias. It’s kind of nice then to receive something as pure and simple as ‘American Head’ from a band whose capacity to surprise is seemingly infinite.
On every new release you hand yourself over and say: “Okay, where are we off to this time?” That journey could lead you anywhere but rarely has a Flaming Lips album been so overtly anchored in one place. While we’re used to seeing them as free-wheeling interstellar explorers who just happen to come from the planet earth, on ‘American Head’ the Oklahoma-based outfit roots itself within the pantheon of American music. The Flaming Lips now counts seven musicians among its ranks and de facto leader, Wayne Coyne, has suggested a kinship with The Grateful Dead and Parliament-Funkadelic, not so much in the music itself but in the ensembles that create it.
Less has often been more in Flaming Lips land, the sense that the nucleus of Coyne, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd operating in insularity is when the real magic comes naturally. This was true to an extent with 2013’s ‘The Terror’, but where that album immersed itself in desolation, ‘American Head’ takes an expansive breath and despite the swollen line-up this collection is as airy and uncluttered as the band has ever sounded. Home, history and family are the impetus and with this focus, ‘American Head’ unfolds with a beauty that The Flaming Lips’ albums haven’t touched on for a while now.
Although progressive, the records that followed ‘The Soft Bulletin’ and ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ came with a certain amount of baggage; an embarrassment of riches, heavy on diatribe, weighty in subject matter and distracting with superfluous characters, narrators and guest turns. Like ‘The Terror’, the band’s latest is more personal in a way that can’t be achieved when you have Reggie Watts discussing unicorn shit or The Clash’s Mick Jones providing a voice-over as each did on ‘American Head’s immediate conceptual predecessors, ‘Oczy Mlody’ and ‘King’s Mouth’.
While those albums took a fantastical slant of their own, ‘American Head’ offers Coyne’s reflections on his and the band’s life stories, quasi-autobiographical yet simultaneously existing in its own alternate reality. The singer’s imagined death from his real-life near-death experience working at Long John Silver’s is played out in Mother Please Don’t Be Sad, a death ballad from beyond the grave that soars from its bittersweet intro, while the hardships of friends and family members are referenced throughout the thirteen tracks.
The Flaming Lips have always been as much at home channelling Pink Floyd or King Crimson as much as Black Sabbath or Sonic Youth, occasionally offering glimpses into the darker side of their id. Despite an occasional break-out, on ‘American Head’ they opt for a languid pace to complement the tinted memories but the spectre of death, a favourite Flips theme, still reigns supreme. When We Die When We’re High bleeds directly from the aforementioned Mother Please Don’t Be Sad, taking that song’s sweetly anthemic edict and changing tack with a more menacing percussive propulsion.
Country singer Kacey Musgraves adds her vocal to Watching the Lightbugs Glow, a dreamy instrumental in the tradition of The Great Gig In The Sky, before joining Coyne for a more traditional duet on God and the Policeman. Musgraves’ contributions are that of a knowing fan in the sense that she sinks into the music with the band rather than using it as a vehicle for a star turn, something that has befallen them with past collaborators.
Hallucinogens loom large and drug references are everywhere, but simply as a way of life, neither glorified nor condemned. As much as At The Movies On Quaaludes references a drug that’s more culturally tied to another era, the song itself feels like it could have come from the band’s mid-nineties period. When Coyne later sings “My younger self, I miss you” on Assassins Of Youth it’s difficult to know which side of the blurred line between fact and fantasy we are on.
The lockdown of this last few months may well be to blame for the wistful wonder and inward gazing of ‘American Head’ and if so, it’s one of the more welcome by-products of the pandemic. When this is all over and we finally get back into a field or a venue with The Flaming Lips, though, don’t be surprised to see a few of these tracks reside with material from ‘The Soft Bulletin’ and ‘Yoshimi…’ as mainstays in the live set. It just leaves one question. Where are we off to next?