The Flaming Lips – American Head

I have a long history with The Flaming Lips dating back to the late 90’s shows in support of their 1st masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin. I’d previously written them off, firmly convinced they weren’t cool. What can I say, I was pretty damn snobby in my youth. I was wrong. Anyway – so began a 21-year (and counting) love affair with all things ‘Lips. The last time I saw the band live was a true spectacle in support of 2017’s Oczy Mlody.

The Paramount in Seattle is a larger venue, typically the largest arena a band will play if they aren’t playing a stadium show. The show was sold out and was a standing room only type deal. I found myself talking with a group of younger (than me) women who were there because of the Miley Cyrus overlap. An unusual scenario, to be sure, but I found myself explaining the history of the band, why I love them, and how their willingness to experiment resulted in their association with Miley Cyrus. A bodyguard came by, asked the group if I was with them – they said yes – and we were whisked down to the front of the stage, in the place typically inhabited by photographers. I got to watch the band entertain a sold-out crowd from a unique perspective. It was one of the stranger experiences of my Seattle concert going adventures, and one that I loved. But now it leads to that dreaded question – what comes next?

2020 finds me in Philadelphia, missing live shows, and navigating a global pandemic. It is up for debate whether live shows will return any time soon, but we can hope. In the midst of all this darkness, The Flaming Lips have been releasing videos from their new album, American Head. The tracks released in advance of the album resonated with me the same way The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots did all those years ago. Emotional, orchestrated, plaintive vocal delivery – the ‘Lips that I enjoy the most. Now that I’ve been living with the full album for a while, I’m pleased to say that this album delivers in every way possible. The band has added another masterpiece to their discography. Not just a retread of their most popular era – this is an album that perfectly soundtracks the chaos of 2020.

2019’s The King’s Mouth was a minor album designed to soundtrack an art exhibit by Wayne Coyne. But it pointed the way towards the 2020 version of The Flaming Lips. This is the band embracing their status as an American band – an established entity worthy of sitting alongside such American stalwarts such as Tom Petty, Metallica, The Allman Brothers, and The Doors. That the album was officially released on 9/11 only deepens that impression for me. This isn’t the fictionalized American dream though – this is the real deal full of drugs, overdoses, faith, and death. It is stunning both in conception and execution.

Will You Return / When You Come Down opens withs mournful vocal interplay between multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and vocalist Wayne Coyne. Right away, the listener can feel something special in the making. This is an acid trip gone wrong, the flip side of optimism. It is instrumentally sparse yet emotionally moving. Watching the Lightbugs Glow features a wordless vocal along with jazzy prog instrumentation. It leads right into Flowers of Neptune 6 – based on childhood memories seeped in drug use and Vietnam. Heavy stuff. This is the Neil Young side of the band that has been somewhat missing over the last decade. Favorite lyrics: “Yellow sun is goin’ down so slow / Doin’ acid and watchin’ the light bugs glow / Like tiny spaceships in a row / The coolest thing I’ll ever know”. Mother I’ve Taken LSD feels like an unreleased Beatles song. It builds from an acoustic base to a full wall of sound. Again, this is the flip side of recreational drugs. Wayne does his best Neil Young imitation singing “Mother, I’ve taken LSD / I thought it would set me free / But I think it’s changed me”. Truly haunting. The song recounts various bad trips the Coyne brothers have experienced, culminating in “Now I see the sadness in the world”. Mother Please Don’t Be Sad is a gem – a ballad led with a mournful horn solo. It recounts an alternate history – Wayne WAS held up at his fast food job in his youth – but this song explores the event as if he died. Again, The Beatles or the Zombies come to mind – this is layered, rich instrumentation. Assassins of Youth is my favorite song on the record – it has a driving, psychedelic vibe that warrants repeat spins. One day you wake up and your youth is gone seems to be the story Wayne is telling. The music feels progressive in nature – this isn’t a Soft Bulletin retread – and builds to an emotional apex. God and the Policeman is a duet with Kacy Musgraves and really taps into the emotions. It seems to be a fictional tale with the protagonist pleading for forgiveness. The video is really something else – a low budget masterpiece in these COVID times (embedded below). The album closes with My Religion is You – a symphonic masterpiece. Lyrically, this isn’t anti religion – this is Wayne saying to hold on to whatever works in these trying times. My favorite lyrics: “If being a Christian / Is your thing, then own it friend / Don’t phone it in”. Reminds me of the folks who I grew up with who were / are still phoning it in. Symphonic and acoustic, it is a perfect album closer.

The album rates high in my book – one of their top 5 albums, for sure. It is out now everywhere. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Verdict: Masterpiece

For Fans of: Mercury Rev, Neil Young, The Beatles, Miley Cyrus, Pink Floyd, The Zombies

Tracks:

  1. Will You Return / When You Come Down
  2. Watching the Lightbugs Glow
  3. Flowers of Neptune 6
  4. Dinosaurs on the Mountain
  5. At the Movies on Quaaludes
  6. Mother I’ve Taken LSD
  7. Brother Eye
  8. You n Me Sellin’ Weed
  9. Mother Please Don’t Be Sad
  10. When We Die When We’re High
  11. Assassins of Youth
  12. God and the Policeman
  13. My Religion Is You

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