ALBUM REVIEW: The Flaming Lips – ‘American Head’: a trippy coming of age about coming of age

DEAR reader: let’s take it you need no introduction to the wayward, playful psychedelic brilliance of Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips.

I can see a solitary hand raised at the back, there; where have you been all this time: the proverbial desert island? You mean to say you missed the glorious early burst of  “She Don’t Use Jelly?”, didn’t scratch your head as you tried to co-ordinate a ragbag of hifis in order to play the four-disc, simultaneous-play puzzle of Zaireeka? You didn’t even bask in the absolute peak psych-wonder of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, glory in the harder trippy edges of Embryonic and The Terror?

… for you, my child, such things as dancing sea creatures, zorbs, balloon cannons and inflated gloves remain just feverish imaginings? Bless. 

It’s lucky then that The Flaming Lips’ 30th album (by our count) is shaping up in our ears to be filed not under “deeply hard psych experimenta Lips”, nor “quirky collaborative fun project Lips”, but under that particular stripe of the Lips at their most absolutely huggable: the reflective, sweet, laid-back, trippy Lips of those twin peaks of multicoloured psych-rock achievement as mentioned above, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi. In that, it’s a great place to jump in for those of you who … gah, I mean, how could you not have by now?

Okay, to define terms a little more. By reflective and trippy, I mean the wide-eyed wonder and thoughtfulness of “Do You Realize??” in which Wayne Coyne pauses, takes stock, looks at the simple truths of the world, one in which “We’re floating in space” and “everyone you know, someday … will die”; or the investigation of the splitting of the atom of “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton”

So we’re at the door of the new one, American Head. It comes wrapped in lushly and typically Lips artwork, in which a found photograph of a teen of what … the 40s? 50s? Finds his eyes spinning and dribbling multi-colour spray paint right out at us. Ah, I’m a fanboy here. Let’s delay no further and get ingesting.

We’re ushered into the head by way of the portal “Will You Return / When You Come Down” (there’s a lot of titular drug references throughout – warning, if you need one). You’re shaken to attention by a tiny burst of static and we’re into a acid-coloured guitar, bells and piano-scape, in which Wayne talks of “a flower head … all your friends are dead.”. His falsetto is in fine form here, and the song makes a break for the stars off the back of an acoustic strum, an astral slide guitar. It’s lush and it gets the colours buzzing. You find yourselves imagining what psychedelic and oddball treats they’re already dreaming up for this song’s place in the live set. It has grace and sweep and theatricality, and when they’re making music like this you really couldn’t ask for more aural nourishment.

“Watching The Lightbulbs Glow” and “Flowers Of Neptune 6” are of a piece, flowing together. The first is fashioned from a sort of stoned immaculate, lovers’ afterglow bliss; a wordless female vocal takes you softly by the hand and gently tumbles you through inner space, a 12-string stepping down semi-tones as her voice flows into a massive chamber of reverb. 

There’s a distant background chatter, as of a radio; inhalation and exhalation guide you across into “Flowers Of Neptune 6”, a mellow, 1968 campfire acid exploration with a really English psych feel to its descending acoustic riff and general air of tenderness. That breathing really puts you by Wayne’s side as he yearns: “Yellow sun is going down so slow / Doing acid and watching the ladybugs glow / Like tiny spaceships in a row / The coolest thing I’ll ever know.” You really get a feeling this is super-autobiographical, a moment in halcyon time captured and filtered through sound. It has that beautiful wide-eyed near-sadness I discussed above. “Alright, cool,” it concludes.  

“Dinosaurs On The Mountain” begins right back in Yoshimi territory, thematically speaking: Wayne all a-boggle at what happened to them? “Just tell me know, how’d it happen after the lava flows? Maybe no one knows,” he sings, in a track that could’ve be been culled from the sessions from that pink robot-battling great – until just after the minute mark it springs for zero-acid gravity on heavily megaphoned voice, big tympani, a guitar riff that wanders and would maybe consider shredding if it weren’t for all the pretty patterns and stuff in front of its eyes. Wayne sounds regretful, elegaic, sad, and it’s then it really hits home: it’s a proper autobiographical psych record, this one: the Lips are looking back at it all and summing it up.

Wayne confirms this: “The music and songs that make up the American Head album are based in a feeling; a feeling that, I think, can only be expressed through music and songs. We were, while creating it, trying to not hear it as sounds, but to feel it. 

“Mother’s sacrifice, Father’s intensity, Brother’s insanity, Sister’s rebellion … I can’t quite put it into words.

“Something switches and others (your brothers and sisters and mother and father … your pets) start to become more important to you. In the beginning there is only you and your desires are all that you can care about; but something switches. I think all of these songs are about this little switch.” 

Freshly chastened and aware, let’s dive back. 

“At The Movies On Quaaludes”, which again emerges straight out of the preceding number on a big piano from Steven Drozd, sees Wayne’s falsetto cracking in that brilliantly endearing way it does. This, you now suspect, is a true incident recounted, as the piano reaches into the folder marked proper dramatic flourishes.

“Mother I’ve Taken LSD” – now that’s an experience the listener may or may not have had the pleasure of: specifically, being with a parent while tripping. And it gets rawer, sadder, as Wayne recalls Tommy’s motorbike crash (he has often recalled in interview how his older brothers were always bringing motorbikes and drugs home, a massively formative experience). “Now I see the sadness in the world,” he concludes as the acoustic guitar string-squeaks to a close. It’s a coming of age recaptured and summated at the distance of many years.

“Brother Eye” is an electronic-psych nugget, wherein Wayne is again lachrymose and super-processed vocally. Electronica dit-dit-dits in a busy satellite transmission above it all. “You N Me Selling Weed” opens as a simple plaintive acoustic thing, “king and queen, dope dealin’”. Aww man, it’s that naivete of early adulthood given life in song. There’s plenty of yawing and pitching, vocal echo, sudden slides as the song slams on the emergency brakes and slurs down, gathers pace again. It manages to be both sweet pop and pretty and mushroomy and glimmering. 

“Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” sees us back at the piano, autumnal toned, strings and brass ushering it on. God, it’s the last song from someone who’s died tonight. This, I’d wager, is the so-nearly real other outcome from his teen years as a short-order chef at the Long John Silver’s seafood chain, when he and his co-workers were held at gunpoint in a botched heist (the would-be robbers eventually fleeing empty-handed). 

“This is really how you die… one minute you’re just cooking up someone’s order of french fries and the next minute you’re laying on the floor and they blow your brains out. There’s no music, there’s no significance, it’s just random,” he told Robert Colbert in an interview in 2012.

I’ve never been held at gunpoint myself, but the poignancy of the lines “Mother don’t be sad, I didn’t mean to die tonight … the ambulance attendants did all they can / And I almost pulled through, but in the end / I won’t see you tonight” – boy, do they strike home. A glammy little string descent leads it on through into a guitar break with those widescreen wordless backing vocals. 

As elsewhere on American Head, there’s a pairing of themes as the lyrical hook is the title of the following tune, “When We Die When We’re High”, which gets busy on big drums, a giant distorted bass pulse, barking dogs and vibraphone. It loosens up and becomes a spacious dubby coda, pulling us back from the emotional edge. It concludes in similar melodic ad thematic territory to “The Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” from Yoshimi.

“Assassins Of Youth” barrels in on woozy autotune and bleepy garnish before Wayne’s big heart and acoustic guitar combine in a paean to his younger self: “I miss you … you’re already gone”. It has a lovely sequencing of the Lips’ acoustic-led big, big vision and a more experimental electronica, resolving into the hardest riffing so far on this outing. 

“God And The Policeman”, twin figures of authority for a well brought-up kid are framed in a male-female call and response, both vocalists refracted through various spectrum-splitting electro-psych vocal treatments, drifting out to a very 2020 future soul vibe. 

Our journey is over with “My Religion Is You”, the video for which is just down there. After some really quite sad moments heretofore, it’s good that the Lips reach into their well of positivity and find a truth in love. Wayne’s amour is the benefit of some very deep dedication: “I don’t need no religions / You’re all I need” he offers to her. The guitar riffs in, and it’s pretty straight, no fuzz, no filtering, and the song drifts towards a slowing end. Wayne’s looked back, ridden through some very deep moments of epiphany, good and bad; he’s come to the now, and with that Oklahoman simplicity arrived at a knowing of what he needs.

It actually feels like a mini-genre sidestep for the Lips, does this one: it’s filled with psych and electronic inventiveness and oddity, but a few of the tunes here are played pretty much straight bat, especially lyrically. There’s almost notice of an intention of a move towards the centre ground …. almost. They’re chroniclings; a coming of age for The Flaming Lips, about the tribulations of coming of age. Where will they head next?

The Flaming Lips’ American Head will be released by Bella Union in the UK and Europe, and Warner Brothers in the US, on CD and tri-coloured gatefold 2xLP. Order yours here.

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