Most bands would struggle to come up with new and interesting ideas 25 years after their debut. Even more would struggle to make two competent projects in one year. But it seems that The Flaming Lips have proven that they are not like most bands with their new album, American Head. While not innovating too much musically, The Flaming Lips have created an effective and emotional reflection on growing up and losing one’s innocence that only really stumbles toward the end.
The story American Head tells is simple but effective. The opening track, “Will You Return / When You Come Down,” sets the reflective, regretful tone of the album. Dreamy vocals, a playful xylophone, and heavy synth bring the listener in, while the lyrics ponder why “now all your friends are dead.” It’s an ethereal and warm song that subtly prepares listeners to look back on their lives and the ones they’ve lost.
“Flowers of Neptune 6” focuses on coming of age. Childish lyrics about light bugs being spaceships, followed by a track entirely about dinosaurs, paint a picture of the album’s young protagonist. Meanwhile, lines like “Oh my god, now it’s me” show that he’s slowly realizing that the need to start growing up. While musically, “Flowers of Neptune 6” feels more grounded than the previous tracks, “Dinosaurs on the Mountain” does everything it can to sound childish and dreamy, which helps the lyrics paint a picture of the naive protagonist.
“At the Movies on Quaaludes” marks a shift in the album toward the very strange motif of drugs and drug use that sticks around for most of the album. While “Flowers of Neptune 6” has a line about doing acid, five of the next six tracks deal with drug use. It’s a strange concept to bring in, but as the protagonist evolves, so does his perception of drugs. Sonically, these songs each match fairly well with their respective lyrics, going from naive to serious depending on the track.
The lines about drugs sound playful and ignorant of consequence right up until “Mother I’ve Taken LSD,” where he claims, “Now I see the sadness in the world” and talks about two friends who have had their lives radically changed by their recklessness. After taking a track off to deal with the death of a brother, “You n Me Sellin’ Weed” tries to return to the playful ignorance of the past, but before the song ends, that illusion is broken once again with the sound of sirens and the revelation in “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” that the protagonist has been killed.
This ultimately leads to what should have been the final song on the album. “Assassins of Youth” is not only one of the better tracks on the album, but also a solid conclusion for all of the themes of the album. The protagonist reflects on his death and realizes what killed him—his drug use and feelings of invincibility. The song feels almost frustrated with its answer, and it is much more grounded than the rest of the album. The only issue with this song is that it isn’t the final track. There are still two more left on the album.
“God and the Policeman” and “My Religion is You” feel out of place because “Assassins of Youth” wraps everything up thematically. “God and the Policeman” tangentially relates to the narrative set up by the album, and Kacey Musgraves’ voice works well with Wayne Coyne’s, but it feels forced when compared to the consistency of the rest of the album. “My Religion is You” is not related at all to the rest of the album, and its chorus drags on. The solid pacing of the album grinds to a halt so that Coyne can think of ways to rhyme the names of religions. The mediocre track only drags the album down.
American Head is a beautiful reflection on the mistakes of a life ended too early that is easily on par with The Flaming Lips’ previous masterpieces of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Had it ended a few tracks sooner and experimented a little more, it might have surpassed them. As it stands, The Flaming Lips are finally back on top with a thoughtful and warm reflection on growing up and death.
Photo Courtesy of Warner Records