American Head represents a reflective and promising reinvigoration for the legendary outfit.
Rather remarkably, 2020 has brought us a new Flaming Lips album that is, in fact, pretty good! To think that this band once rode so high, a solid decade of music and accompanying promotion and touring that internet writers gobbled up without fail. This was because much of it was indeed quite good, though the merits of albums like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War with the Mystics are not the sort that have much of a place in our streaming times. Indeed, bemoaning The Flaming Lips’ present-day relevancy is an old person’s game (“They made songs for arenas!” or “Their physical releases always came with a few surprises!”), but for a time, they seemed like a band that could continuously tweak and reinvent themselves just enough to remain interesting. Granted, success is not actually so far in The Lips’ rearview — 2013’s The Terror still holds up as a triumph of disturbed psychedelia, and their extensive contributions to the decadent pop masterwork Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz may very well reflect the last time the band was genuinely inspired. But in between these peaks, the decade has largely seen the band and its mastermind, Wayne Coyne, working through midlife crisis and reveling in encroaching legacy act status over the course of various, gimmick-heavy cover albums and two cruise control LPs.
These were troublesome developments for an artist whose career has largely been built upon an aloof, whimsical neo-hippie persona; thus American Head, the band’s sixteenth studio album (!!), enters the world on shaky ground. Conceived as a rumination on the band’s “American roots,” the album immediately courts skepticism while attempting to undercut it. As reflected in the songs, we might interpret this to mean that Coyne and his one enduring collaborator, Steven Drozd, are reassessing their decades-long project, reckoning with the aforementioned contexts that now color any of their output. Though none of that tension manifests so dramatically in American Head, which is a generally good-natured album recalling the band’s most beloved output that manages to distinguish itself just enough. Maybe spurred on by contemporary political strife, or maybe, simply, inspired by the general passage of time, American Head finds Coyne and Drozd convincingly in the present. And this is precisely how this album is able to transcend the easy “back to basics” label, the songs leaning into what has been successful before — ’60s pop melodies entwined with sweeping, spacey psych-rock jams, Coyne’s nasally warble hanging above — but there is refreshing sincerity here. Coyne’s lyrics don’t speak to explicit ideological realities, and are in fact playfully evasive, cloaked in his acid head vernacular and various hallucinogenic tropes, but they appeal directly to the challenge of contending with our greatest existential concerns. In this way, American Head asserts that The Flaming Lips have more to say. 2020 might not find them doing something new, but it has the band (re)considering themselves in promising ways.
Published as part of Pop Rocks | Q3 2020 Issue – Part 1.