The Flaming Lips – American Head Album Review

Warner Music – 2020

Wayne Coyne and co. are back with their 16th studio album following on from last years storybook tale of The Kings Mouth which saw the band create their first full singular story driven album. In usual Flaming Lips style it was one of a universe living inside someones head after he saves them from an avalanche by eating the universe. Coyne certainly likes to tell a story, as elaborate as they may be. And this time instead of the focus being on a child with an abnormally large head he’s leaned back onto some of his own personal childhood stories. The sound of Lips has also taken back to their more acoustic and soft rock sound that featured heavily on 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, coming away from their more experimental and electronic sounds of Oczy Mlody.

Where Oczy Mlody saw the band create highly unique and dense soundscapes that floated between the weird and wonderful, they seem to have taken a step back on American Head and gone into the territory of the unmemorable and pastiche. The sound is as psyched out and LSD induced as ever, with a lean on more 70’s ballad soft rock, even with the occasional moment of a country barn dance groove thrown in on ‘You N Me Sellin’ Weed’. But for a band known for taking risks, there seems to be a layer of hazard tape covered all of this album. The sound that’s introduced on opener ‘Will You Return/ When You Come Down’ seem to linger throughout the album. The guitar slide to signify the lead into a booming drum roll happens so often on this album it’s hard to tell whether their quota was filled or not. Without reading the song titles they could be mistaken for one another on surface level or description.

There are moments on this album that do standout though, perhaps due to actually having some structure and revere about them, it’s rare but that classic Flaming Lips punch can be found on occasion. ‘Mother I’ve Taken LSD’ has similar elements of swooning synthesisers and driving drums that are glazed over most of this albums sonic palette, but this time the flow and melancholy intwined within the song are more potent and evocative. Instrumentally it’s the highlight of the album, a true psych rock ballad.With the synthesisers really driving the orchestral and cinematic feel, overpowering you with emotion and nostalgia. And lyrically it speaks from the point of Coyne as a child, reminiscing in lost friends. “Mother did you hear about Tommy’s crash? You know he rides his motorcycle way too fast, He’s alive but they say he won’t last”. This theme of loss is one that runs throughout this album and is one of the elements that does ground it through all the loose spaced out movements. ‘Mother Please Don’t Be Sad’ sees Coyne reminisce in the pre-warning he was planning on giving his mother about his death after the restaurant he worked in was robbed when he was 17. “So mother, please don’t be sad, It’s only me that’s died tonight, There’s so much you still have, Remember all the others, That are still alive”. A deeply dark and harrowing story that thankfully Coyne is able to tell, and tell in a very grandiose way.

Straight afterwards however it transitions into ‘When We’re High When We Die’ an instrumental piece that spends the next nearly 4 minutes playing around with the idea of creating interesting instrumental passages, yet never seems to get far. The twinkling Xylophone melody stays constant, shifting through different background samples that sound as comes across as if the band are running through the Logic Pro sample pack seeing which one would work best. It’s not the only moment where instrumentally the sound never really settles on one direction or feeling. ‘Dinosaurs On The Mountain’ within the first minute moves from twinkling arpeggio notes to acoustic ballad and then to full blown space rock opera featuring the highly overused condensed vocal effect. While The Flaming Lips have never been a band that sticks to one sound palette, this might perhaps the extreme of that idea. ‘Watching The Lightbugs Glow’ does offer promise with the instrumental side of the album early on, glistening vocal melodies and flowing psychedelic passages. But at nearly 3 minutes it does set in motion a common theme of this album, songs overstaying there welcome.

It’s not as if this album isn’t consistent, that’s one of the main qualities of it. However the consistency is often displaces the creativity and vibrancy that The Flaming Lips have become known for. Coyne’s storytelling ability is still as strong as ever, with some of these songs perhaps being his most personal to date. But are presented in a way that at times gets lost in this albums unwillingness to break out, and really take the songs to any grand scale.

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