Review: The Flaming Lips’ ‘American Head’ is their most satisfying album in a decade
The Flaming Lips have spent most of the 2010s both defying and embracing expectations. Their albums have been dark and difficult (The Terror), collaborations with "fwends" like Miley Cyrus and Deap Vally, full album covers of Dark Side of the Moon, and records heavy on psych imagery but lacking in the kind of memorable songs their '90s and '00s albums were full of. Meanwhile, their live shows -- full of glitter, fake blood, bubbles, lazers, more glitter, giant hands and more -- felt more about spectacle than performance.
Though it was a high concept album that was still too weird for most people, last year's The King's Mouth was also a welcome return to the melodic psychedelia of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The Flaming Lips have now made a record that is fully back in that mode and is their catchiest batch of songs in at least 10 years. It's also an extremely personal record for both Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd, who drew from real life experiences for American Head's 13 songs.
American Head is somehow also a concept album inspired by the death of Tom Petty. Coyne says the songs are written, sort of, from the perspective of Petty's '70s band Mudcrutch, if they had stuck around Oklahoma City after playing a gig there, never left, got addicted to drugs and recorded an album that went unheard. "Once I started to go down that kind of rabbit hole — what was that like? — I thought, 'Well, maybe my older brothers and their drug dealer friends possibly — and this isn't that far-fetched — visited them and sold them some pot or some acid, or, you know, something worse," Coyne told the L.A Daily News. Coyne and Drozd imagined a "sad, drug-addicted, homesick album" and decided they had to make it.
This was all a springboard for using Coyne's adolescence as fodder for the songs which in no way sound like Tom Petty. There are songs about Coyne's teenage years as a pot dealer ("You n' Me Sellin Weed"), his brother telling his parents he'd done acid ("Mother I've Taken LSD"), and the time the Long John Silver's where Coyne was a cook got robbed and he thought he was going to die ("Mother Please Don't Be Sad").
Flaming Lips albums have always been neck-deep in psychedelic imagery, but where they used to sing about "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," here we get "Weed," "LSD" and "At the Movies on Quaaludes." The latter, which is where the album gets its title, is one of the many pretty songs on the album, with a young Coyne dreaming of escaping Oklahoma City while not doing anything about it: "As we destroy our brains / Till we believe we're dead / It's the American dream / In the American head."
And the songs really are lovely this time out, from the very Soft Bulletin-esque "Will You Come Down / Will You Return?," to the twangy and nostalgic "Watching the Lightbugs Glow," and the dark, transportive "Brother Eye" with its very hypnotic keyboard hook). Psychedelics enthusiast Kacey Musgraves turns up on two songs, singing harmonies on "Flowers of Neptune 6" and in full duet mode on the terrific spaghetti western vibing "God and the Policeman."
Even if there isn't an obvious "hit" like "Do You Realize?," "Race for the Prize," or "Superman Song," American Head is their most satisfying record since at least Embryonic and is quite an accomplishment for any band coming up on 40 years in existence.
Listen to the album, and watch the new video for "God and the Policeman," below.