Following a string of challenging and flawed albums in the past decade, The Flaming Lips have regained control over their sound and presentation, and American Head marks one of their best albums to date.
More than ever, The Flaming Lips wear their influences on their sleeves, and traces of Bob Dylan and The Beatles can be found sprinkled throughout the album. The band also returns with a more subdued sound. Gone is the wall of sound approach taken on The Soft Bulletin or the bombastic, more electronic-oriented Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. American Head’s sound is full of airy, washed out instruments, and Coyne’s signature falcetta performance takes center stage. The result is one of the most musically and thematically coherent albums in the band’s discography.
This album feels extremely personal for the band as they reflect on tragedy, their experiences with drugs and their relationships with the people they look up to. Opening track “Will You Return / When You Come Down” acts like an overture as it sets the melodic and thematic tone for the rest of the album. This song’s eerie, ghostlike production accompanied by a powerful falsetto match exceptionally well with the tragic themes explored throughout the album.
The first song reaches a powerful crescendo before gently drifting down into the track, “Watching the Lightbugs Glow” — a gentle instrumental with vocals by Kacey Musgraves. It offers a short reprieve and pulls double duty as a prolonged intro to “Flowers of Neptune 6.” The latter covers much of the same ground as the album’s first track, however with help from some powerful percussion, the instrumentation on this track feels more driving than “Will You Return / When You Come Down” and moves the album into new narrative territory.
The most somber moment for American Head occurs during the track “Brother Eye.” This track leads the audience through the dense forest of raw emotion felt after the loss of a loved one. The band’s guitarist and keyboardist Steven Drozd sings passionately about the loss of his family through antique vocal distortion while an intricate web of synths and acoustic instruments fade like waves on the beach in and out of the mix.
Briefly lightening the tone, “You n Me Sellin’ Weed” starts as an offbeat love song about a couple who dream of escapism and show their love by dealing drugs together. However, over the course of the song, it gradually evolves to reveal the harsh reality of their lifestyle. Informed by the experiences of his friends, Coyne reveals the more sinister side of the romantic love story with the line, “You gotta live what you do / Got blood in my shoe.” This line juxtaposed with an innocent tone highlights the band’s philosophy on memories as a romanticization of the past.
“Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” and “When We Die When We’re High” are a pair of songs from the album which match exceptionally well. In “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad,” Coyne dramatizes a near-death experience from his youth. Powerful swellings of brass, piano and strings add to the emotional intensity of the track as Coyne reassures a maternal figure from the afterlife. Following is the rhythmic and floating track, “When We Die When We’re High,” which feels as if the listener is drifting off into the afterlife. Grounding the track is a single menacing synth note which is repeated incessantly as the rest of the song evolves around it. It is an absolute delight for psych-loving ears.
Finishing off the album is the track “My Religion is You.” It’s quite a kitschy finishing track and doesn’t really live up to the emotional themes or standard of quality seen throughout the rest of the album. The song is just fine, but the album deserves a conclusion which is more resolute.
Kitschy songs aside, The Flaming Lips’s American Head is still one of the better albums of the band’s catalog and 2020 in general. It is incredibly appropriate for the current time and is a wonderful listen for anyone suffering with the isolation-induced quarantine gloom.
Contributor Kai Bartol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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