The Flaming Lips – “American Head” Review

Story posted September 14, 2020 in Arts & Entertainment, CommRadio by Scott Perdue

Riding a high of steady releases, The Flaming Lips are back with their 16th studio album, “American Head,” another compelling record to add to their impressive discography.

Dipping even further into their commentary on the nature of drug use, this time with an even harsher critical lens, the band once again tackles dark imagery with an oddly light touch.

Led by their admirably eccentric and exceedingly unique theatrical frontman Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips are an experimental band unlike any other. Arguably best known for their highly successful albums “The Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” The Flaming Lips are regarded as a band which has never stopped evolving.

Blending influences from all across the psychedelic rock genre, the group has garnered a cult following thanks to their strange instrumentation and their capacity to tackle serious material through their absurdist approaches. This time, the group dilates on concepts such as familial tragedy, the bright and dark sides of drug use and the loss of innocence.

While it is evident that the group is tackling some of the most gripping content they have ever written, the execution on several tracks falls short of transmitting the true potency of the subject material.

Opening with the haunting orchestral track “Will You Return/When You Come Down,” The Flaming Lips smack the listener with cascading synths and blunt drum overtures. This song sets the tone of the record flawlessly, pressing upon the listener that this album is one about reflection and the mourning process.

The album then transitions into the twinkling “Watching the Lightbugs Glow.” Setting the scene with a fey aria performed by recurring guest voice Kacey Musgraves, this pleasing track perfectly aids in the shift to the explosive “Flowers of Neptune 6.”
A powerful thrust of emotion on the record, this song is one of the strongest Flaming Lips’ releases in recent years. With the enthralling exclamation, “oh my God, why was it them? Oh my God, now it’s me,” Coyne reflects on concepts such as survivor’s guilt and vanishing innocence in the triumphant way that only The Flaming Lips could. 

The album then begins to lose a bit of its traction because of the lackluster execution on several of the following tracks.

While the shimmering “Dinosaurs on the Mountain” is somewhat forgivable because of its origin as a piece written for one of the bandmate’s children, multiple tracks lack the same presence that many of the earlier songs wield so brilliantly.

The emotional atmosphere behind tracks like “Mother I’ve Taken LSD” and “Brother Eye” fail to capture the listener due to inconsistent composition choices and bombastic executions. Specifically, “Brother Eye” feels particularly misplaced on the record because of its jarring utilization of techno synths.

The record does manage to retrieve some of its lost momentum thanks to the benchmark track “You n Me Sellin’ Weed.” A nod to lead singer Coyne’s earlier days of drug dealing, this track speaks to the glamorized Hollywood narrative of being involved with drugs, but with a sinister undertone.

The verses have an underlying commentary which speaks to the eventual pain and suffering Coyne would later encounter due to his drug use. This song acts as a successful transition into the darker side of the record.

The following track “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” speaks to Coyne’s near-death experience of being held at gunpoint while working at a fast food restaurant as a young adult. The song conveys the alternative narrative which could have occurred if the robber had executed Coyne, and brings to life the anxious scenes which flashed in his head during the traumatic experience.

While the album then once again stumbles trying to execute the full weight of the material, the record finishes poignantly with the sentimental “My Religion Is You.” The song seemingly acts as a call to unity, closing the album with a plea for peace and community.

One of the unfortunate downsides to “American Head” is that every time the album seems to be gaining significant traction, a series of underdeveloped tracks completely disrupts the flow and drags down the more exceptional moments on the album.

Although the deep subject matter is strung throughout, there is seemingly a lack of cohesion between many of the beats on the album.

A group which has very little left to prove, The Flaming Lips on a bad day are better than most bands on a good day. The band’s affection for experimental compositions can sometimes result in tracks which are unfortunate misses, but several tracks on “American Head” pull through as real showpieces.

While it is evident that this album must have been cathartic for the bandmates to produce, many of the interesting concepts the group attempts to divulge into are left feeling shallow and underwhelming. Hopefully on a future release, the band will once again return to conveying their interesting subject matter with a better execution of their ideas.

Rating: 7/10

Reviewer’s Favorite Songs: “Flowers of Neptune 6” and “You n Me Sellin’ Weed”

Reviewer’s Least Favorite Song: “Brother Eye”

Scott Perdue is a senior majoring in secondary education. To contact him, email rsp5246@psu.edu.