“American Head” a nostalgic return to form for The Flaming Lips


Courtesy of Alex Cheek for Flickr

“American Head” marks the band’s 17th studio album since 1986.

Ethan Myers, Managing Editor

Glancing at the tracklist, song titles mentioning quaaludes, LSD and weed might suggest that “American Head” is just another run-of-the-mill, trip down psychedelic rock for The Flaming Lips. And in many ways, that wouldn’t be a false assumption, as the sonics and style of “American Head” don’t stray far from what made the band a successful and critically-acclaimed outfit for nearly four decades. Its eerie synths, trippy guitar tones and stunning ballads could all be found on a number of Flaming Lips’ albums since 1986.

Yet it isn’t all the same this time around. 

While Wayne Coyne’s lyrics have always hit upon gloomy themes of death, depression and addiction, “American Head” doesn’t masquerade its bleak undertones in metaphors of giant killer robots or whatever the hell this was. Instead it’s blunt, honest and straight to the point.

The melancholic intro, “Will You Return/When You Come Down,” pulls no punches in the story it’s telling. “Crashing in your car (Crashing in their car)/What went wrong? (Singing songs)/Now all your friends are gone (All your friends are gone),” Coyne sings over a wall of gentle pianos and psychedelic effects.

Although the candid songwriting clashes heavily with the grand and blooming choruses from Coyne on numerous tracks, they do, in fact, work together to pack an intimately emotional punch and make for an uniquely engaging listening experience.

With assisting vocals from country’s rising star Kacey Musgraves, “Flowers of Neptune 6” struggles with the inevitable fate of Coyne and his LSD-popping buddies. He dejectedly sings, “John’s still a greaser and Tommy’s gone off to war/James got busted and doesn’t give a fuck anymore/Oh my god, why is it them?/Oh my god, now it’s me.”

The album reaches a high point on “Brother Eye,” a glitchy but swellingly beautiful cut that finds Coyne pleading with his brother to not die.

But perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment comes on “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad.” Coyne sings of a real experience when he was robbed at gunpoint as a teenager, but he calls out to his mother as if he didn’t survive the incident, “So mother, please don’t be sad/It’s only me that died tonight/There’s so much you still have/Remember all the others/That are still alive… Remember to let the dogs outside/’Cause I won’t be there tonight.”

Coyne sings both literally and metaphorically of death on “Assassins of Youth,” as he battles with growing older and losing his childlike energy. He sings on the chorus, “I was young yesterday/But now everything has changed after today/And I don’t know what to do/Oh, my youngest self, I miss you.”

The album closes with the beautiful ballad, “My Religion Is You,” which, on an album that deals with death and despair, feels like an optimistic grasp at love amidst pain and struggle. The track’s skepticism in religion is reminiscent of the song, “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” off the Lips’ 1968 debut album “Hear It Is. Although the skepticism remains, Coyne has seemingly ditched the passionately militant atheist for a more open mind (maybe it’s all the LSD). 

“If being a Christian/Is your thing then own it, friend/Don’t phone it in/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,” sings Coyne. 

Perhaps it is symbolic of the band’s most notable transformation since 1968: a metamorphosis from young, punk-influenced rebels to old, laid-back hippies.

Although it may not have the intricacy of “Soft Bulletin” or the eccentricity of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” “American Head” is, if anything, a refreshing return to form for the Lips after a decade of bizarre musical detours and questionable artistic choices.

It certainly won’t win Wayne Coyne and the crew any points for experimentation or produce a fan out of a skeptic, but “American Head” isn’t as much of a bold artistic statement rather than a friendly reminder of the timeless greatness of The Flaming Lips.