WRITTEN BY: Tim Shermer
Since their formation in the early 1980s, the Flaming Lips have been one of the most unflinchingly imaginative bands to ever do it, occupying and quickly becoming esteemed citizens of the most outlandish provinces of what’s popularly considered rock music—and remaining for a time we can now measure in decades. The Oklahoma City-based septet fronted by Wayne Coyne has earned a towering reputation for their acid-drenched melodies, bombastic concept albums, and a long history of charismatic live performances that drops them somewhere in between jam band territory and that of Parliament-Funkadelic. If they needed to cement this reputation any further (and few would suggest that they do), they couldn’t have done much better than American Head, released last Friday on Warner Records.
Arriving only six months after a collaborative full-length effort with LA garage-rock outfit Deap Vally, American Head is more than just a testament to the Lips’ recent prolificity—it’s a seriously awesome and cohesive record in its own right that builds upon much of their strongest previous output. If you put any stock in charts, it’s their highest-charting release in the UK since 2006’s terrific At War with the Mystics. And it may also find its way to the ears of younger, previously unacquainted audiences thanks to a Kacey Musgraves feature (“God and the Policeman”).
The most striking influences for Coyne and friends on their sixteenth studio album come from within as well as without: on many occasions American Head seems referential to the Lips’ existing body of work. Its overture “Will You Return / When You Come Down” could just as easily set the scene for Yoshimi or Embryonic after a few lyrical tweaks. To risk stating the obvious, Head also draws heavily and perhaps intentionally from the accessible psychedelia of the late-period Beatles and their peers, while still sounding perfectly modern. More recent influences likely include contemporary masters of crunchy guitar tones ranging from Ty Segall to Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra circa Multi-Love—the latter becoming a particularly robust comparison as the record plays on.
“Doin’ acid and watchin’ the light bugs glow / Like tiny spaceships in a row / The coolest thing I’ll ever know,” sings Coyne on track 3, “Flowers of Neptune 6.” Sure to strike anyone remotely familiar with the band’s catalog as utterly Coynian to the point of parody, these lyrics are accompanied by a driving progression played much more rhythmically than your typical Lips passage. Not to worry though, shit gets plenty atmospheric on ensuing tracks.
There’s no shortage of drug references to be found in American Head’s tracklist, but it wouldn’t be fair to say the record is about drugs; equally prevalent lyrical themes include family, spirituality, and the current state of the world. “At the Movies on Quaaludes” gushes with sentimentality (along with the spaciness promised above), as does the bucolic “You n Me Sellin’ Weed.” In many ways, it’s a deeply personal set of thirteen songs. Sometimes the melodies and arrangements reflect this, often they don’t—and this careful balance between the epic, almost cinematic, and the excruciatingly personal is perhaps the greatest thrill to the whole record.
The guitar work, while nothing mindblowing, is the kind of thing that could be downright rapturous when played live (thinking of “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” and the wah-pedal section in “When We Die When We’re High” specifically), whenever that may be. All manners of auxiliary percussion, synthesizers, and extraneous sounds ranging from motorcycle engines to cow moos are employed to perfection. The strings, handled predominantly by Coyne and fellow founding member Steven Drozd, are an indispensable piece of most every song’s sonic fabric. The Flaming Lips have achieved a certain longevity that’s worth mentioning here more than once because they’ve done it without ever crossing over into that domain of washed-up dad rock (though Coyne is now a dad himself); if anything, they’re probably guilty of veering too far off-center, of pushing too many boundaries for the sake of pushing them. This hasn’t come without its relative failures and some pretty damn forgettable mid-career releases, but American Head stands squarely in the territory of a knockout success. Color no one surprised.