“Now I see sadness in the world”
When coming up with the name for the Album, Wayne Coyne wanted to call the Flaming Lips newest record “American Dead”, a morbid reflection of style and theme. Then both Wayne Coyne’s wife and his manager convinced him that the album’s title was a bummer and he agreed, so he changed the title. Despite his best efforts, American Head is still a huge fucking bummer; it’s also kind of incredible, barring some speed bumps.
I dropped out of The Flaming Lips recording schedule in about 2013 after The Terror (which I adored) because, for lack of a better word, I lost interest. As such, my frame of reference for The Flaming Lips stops around the jittering noise chaos of the stark noise apocalypse of that record. That said, when I saw this record, with its bizarre upsetting nostalgia-browned kaleidoscopic cover featuring Coyne’s brother Tommy, I found my interest re-ignited. After several revolutions on sunny afternoon walks, I have some thoughts on it. So let’s talk about it.
What is American Head?
American Head is The Flaming Lip’s 16th Studio record, released in 2020. It is 13 tracks, and 50 minutes long. It is a recapitulation of ideas from their early 2000’s sound and flows in veins of Fuzz Folk and Psych-Rock that have typified their storied, almost three decades of performance.
Inspired by Wayne Coyne’s fear of his brother’s drug use in youth, and revisiting those fears as an adult, he seeks to replicate a what-if scenario around an obscure segment of Tom Petty’s autobiography, when he recorded an album in Coyne’s hometown in Oklahoma in 1974. The songs are meant to reflect an interpretation of youth from Old age, wiser, sadder, and a survivor of the darkness of those days.
What I Liked
Dark Side of the American Dream
The Flaming Lips have always been open about their adoration of Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. However, they’ve never truly attained to those conceptual or sonic heights, not even that one companion album they released in 2013. Here, though, it’s different.
American Head invites comparison to that pop-monolith. The sound is dusty, gritty, rolling around in the caramel sepia-toned past. The sounds are expansive and full of grandiose synths and strings. Drizzled thickly in echo and distortion, everything’s panoramic and in bloody, over-saturated technicolor. Drum sounds echo in the far reaches of night, banging with their noblesse oblige expansiveness. Synths jitter like bugs in the cracks and the guitars and strings expand into the distance. Pure Cinema
The sounds are only part of the comparison though. It’s in the execution of the concep that the record truly comes close.
Like Dark Side of the Moon, Astral Weeks, or Pet Sounds the record revolves around a wheel with several interlinked thematic spokes: Death, Drugs, Memory, Getting Older, and Sadder. The anagnorisis of aging. Where Dark Side of the Moon follows the abstract definitions of man’s life – from Time to Money, to Insanity – American Head revisits a youth changed by the process of getting older, and perhaps a little wiser.
Drug use and Death are prominent thru-lines and features in almost every song. While the characters often change from moment to moment, these thru-lines recur suggest a narrative. From the opening track “Will you return/when you come down” which starts with a musical non-sequitur that implies a loop that isn’t there, we revisit snatches of history with evocative, straight lyrics about doing LSD and Quaaludes, selling weed, getting killed by the cops, searching for God, and watching the light bugs glow.
There isn’t a true story. No Pink, No Tommy, No Ziggy. But the consistent thematic explorations and the narrative construction of the track list suggest one. A sad one. A tired one. A beautiful one. Like Dark Side of the Moon, the story is told in the music, not in the concept.
Speaking of the music.
The Return to Sounds, but Altered
This record can be seen as a return to form. Sounding like the Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, or even At War With the Mystics. There are several motives, bits, and pieces of other sounds from the body of their three-decade career, but the album lives in that fuzz folk daydream that ponders the existence of Christmas On Mars and whether Dinosaurs live on the mountains outside Pittsburgh.
Even with that return to form though, the sounds remain fresh because, while The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi have a sense of open-eyed wonder and grandiosity, a sense of possibility, on American Head, they sound…tired. Sad. Reflective. It’s not youthful malingering. Not someone railing at injustice impotently with all the piss and vinegar of you. It’s someone who has lived a while, changed, and morphed and grown to see the truth of things. The value of the past.
Wayne Coyne, at just shy of 60, ruminates. Apropos, it seems of 2020 as a whole, which invites dark introspection, American Head feels like an older man looking at the chaos and darkness of his past, without the benefit of nostalgia, looking for benediction. Justifying his survival among the wreckage of youth. Combining the classic psych-folk affectation of youth with the incredible drumming of Steve Drozd’s whose slightly distorted virtuosity defines the record, and the rest of the band at their peak, the album effectively conveys the underlying dread and despair without feeling grim.
Coyne has noted in several interviews and in the notes on this record that the process of writing these songs was of the moment, and organic. One gets the sense that the cadences, the peaks, and valleys are all momentary glimpses into something greater. It’s not just that he’s returning to the sound that found the group success, it’s that they’ve rediscovered that sound after searching sonic seas. The last 10 years of their career have featured this sonic exploration as well, and it’s navigating the roughs that has led them back to this shore.
The return triumphs, because it’s not a regression. It’s revisiting old shores because there’s something new to say. That newness is the product of sobering up and seeing the wide eyed past with new sorrow. It also allows for the narrative construction that defines the records greatest strength.
The Narrative Progression
That narrative of searching the past to find benediction is not, at first, apparent. The first few songs flit emotionally between the themes but don’t cohere. It feels like a search. The starting track is huge and inviting and suggests darkness to come with its flower guns and death.
It’s followed by a Great Gig in the Sky Kacey Musgraves instrumental “Watching the Light bugs Glow” that’s parts wonder and sadness, based on her own experiences with LSD. Each moment digs deeper, sounding more tired, traveling to another round of guilt on “Flowers of Neptune 6”. Despite the underlying darkness, the opening tracks have a vibrant lightness to them, which only suggests the underlying darkness. That changes after Dinosaur on the Mountains, the only track that’s truly atonal in context.
At “At the movies on quaaludes”, a soporific dream, it starts to feel like there’s a logic to the flow. The classic druggie narrative that only progresses further into darkness on tracks as it progresses. “Mother, I’ve just taken LSD” transitions the record to the dark. In a Rolling Stone Interview, Coyne elaborates on how the process of taking LSD wasn’t mind-opening, it just made him horribly sad.
This double-edged wonder is an ombré cloth. Where the darkness coming in around the edges starts out as a sensation of wideness and splendor it devolves progressively, dipping further and further into the lurking shadows of real life. The sounds get heavier spiritually, each minor modulation is a downward slope as The Lips search more and more for that American dream among the memories of youth. Whether that’s at the slaughterhouse or selling weed.
This record is heavy, gravitational, pulling you deeper into its embrace as it progress. Each time I’ve listened, I’ve been pulled into its emotional singularity. I’ve been lulled into darkness as I go further and further on the druggie journey to annihilation. It invites contemplation and sorrow, but its balanced and rich and the sounds are gorgeous. It’s not desolate, even though desolation threatens increasingly over the record.
Then, “Mother, Please Don’t Be Sad” comes on and sets it all right and the record suddenly becomes truly narrative.
The last stretch of this album is a revelation. It has the exact narrative tension of all the best movies. Drifting from a story of a man dying after being shot by police, based on a real experience of Coyne’s own experience with being robbed while working at Long John Silver’s, we transition into “When we’re high when we die” an instrumental chase scene flitting between vibes and synths, and then to the climactic “Assassins of youth”.
Here the darkness overwhelms. There is a merging, the records contours define themselves and pull rack focus on the three-act structure. We’re pulled into another world made purely of noise, both beautiful and chaotic; the drum work is the best here, understated and technical and propulsive. The tension tightens, and threatens to burst at every moment. “Assassins of Youth” is both too long and too short, and the tensions don’t relieve themselves until the very last moment, ambiguous and jagged.
After the narrative fires have died down, we come to the spare, affective quiet desperation of Kacey Musgraves on “God & The Policeman” an apocalyptic terrifying track. A push for benediction finding all hope is lost and the climax. But, it’s not the last track.
“My Religion is You” resolves the conflict beautifully. Light is found in the dark. Coyne’s revelation that religion is a means to be less lonely sounds distant, but warm, and understanding. There is no answer, but there doesn’t need to be one. A light has been found. And whatever gives you that light, whether that be Krishna, or your love, is enough.
And the opening non-sequitur remains unresolved. No perpetual loop.
What didn’t work
The Sounds that Don’t Work
While 90% of this record sounds incredible, the right amount of distortion and the right amount of beauty and clarity, it was mixed slightly too loudly. There is some notable loudness that distorts some sections which would benefit from a quieter more balanced mix. While this doesn’t affect the entire experience – you can just turn the music down – it does hinder the sonic textures a bit.
There is a lot hidden in this record, begging to be discovered, and the loudness works against it.
The more frustrating sounds are the ones that should work, that don’t. This is most evident on “Brother eyes” which has this synth patch that’s rachitic and thin, and it sounds so out of character with the lush sounds of the rest of the records. There are some mercifully beautiful strings to counterbalance that nasty chirp, but it sounds more like a bug in the song, crawling around the edges and adds almost nothing to the experience of listening.
Conceptually Atonal and Derivative to Start
As good as the songs on the first half are, there is a lack of consistency to them – that is highlighted by the back half of the record – conceptually and narratively. They don’t slot nicely with each other and create a dissonant sense of flow. They don’t gel well together which makes the first half of this record far less memorable than the back half.
It’s the one thing that truly prevents this record from ascending. Perhaps with additional listens, they will grow on me, but Kacey Musgraves’s vocal track almost feels like filler, currently. And while this does nothing to diminish the overall effect, it does hinder the experience a mite.
While the return to sound is largely an organic return, the first half of tracks sometimes feels like a return to the point of being rote. “Dinosaurs on the Mountain” is such a classic type of Flaming Lips song that it feels derivative of Soft Bulletin, and not reflective of it. It’s more of a song that would have fit earlier in their career, but now hinders the record from true greatness. Though it’s still comparable to those great records of the concept pantheon.
This record is an amazing release, and a true return for The Flaming Lips. It has obliterated my previous disinterest in their career and has left me excited to reexplore their catalogues. It invite endless relistens with its conceptual strength and strong narrative flow, it’s sounds are reminiscent of the past, but not beholden to them. Barring some missteps in the first half, this collection of tracks represents a powerful song cycle that I’m eager to listen to more of, and discover the hidden depths.
8.2*10^ 21 out of 10*10^21