The Flaming Lips tackle ghosts on American Head
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Maybe it’s just the territory that comes with age, but accurately evaluating new music from established artists feels trickier than it used to be. There’s a strong urge for optimism, and that can sometimes cloud judgement on a first listen. Is this what I want from this band? Is this too familiar? Too weird? Am I going to go back to this music, or is this destined to disappear after a week, relegated to the recesses of the shelf, never to return?
But listening to the sweeping soundscapes of “Watching the Lightbugs Glow” flow effortlessly into “Flowers of Neptune 6” spurred old emotions, a classic sound in a modern space colliding together for a new experience. And on closer inspection, the band isn’t just dragging through the past in some kind of effort to rekindle old glories. Instead, they’re taking stock of friends and acquaintances long since gone, and the most logical way to come to grips with all this was to reach back to a familiar sound. The result is American Head, one of the more satisfying albums of the Flaming Lips' recent work.
The band seems to be tackling the pitfalls and wistful past-tense of youth, which is just another way of facing mortality — something the band has done extremely well in the past. Throughout, but especially on the stretch of “Mother I’ve Taken LSD” though “God and the Policeman,” the band paints these sketches of people and situations, places long in the past, where reflection doesn’t carry judgement any longer. They’re just moments, ones that shaped the artists, and the people behind them. Many (if not all) are no longer here to defend themselves, but that’s not as necessary. They’re periods and funny stories and cautionary tales, the collection of everyone who makes us who we are.
It’s fitting that the original title of this album was American Dead. The way the characters are drawn together in this web of humanity feels so real and is reflective of the way our experiences blend together over the years. The record plays like the scattershot memories of anyone’s mind, bouncing around and meshing together, arriving at the forefront with the haphazard recall of waking life. The difference here is that they’re set to a soundtrack crafted by Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd, at once adding to both the surreal and hyperreal nature of the experience.
I remember 2013’s The Terror as been an intense listening experience, with the Coyne and the band working through some of the darkest motifs of their career in appropriately haunting fashion. But I can’t say that I revisited that album particularly often, though it likely warrants it. That album seemed like the dark, reasonable next step from 2009’s Embryonic, though there were plenty of experiments and side trips in between with collaborators of all kinds. And this may be ignorance, but it feels like those side trips dominated the past decade for the band. Their one proper, traditional album in between The Terror and American Head, 2017’s Oczy Mlody, sounded good, too, but it didn’t stay in rotation.
The first time through this album felt different. There was no strain in listening. From the opening “Will you Return / When You Come Down,” there was the combination of excitement and familiarity that has been present in all their best work since The Soft Bulletin. It’s not driven by nostalgia, or as some kind of retread exercise. In music, there’s a tendency to make every album a referendum on an artist’s entire body of work. That’s not the attempt here — however good this album is doesn’t have any bearing on the band’s best albums.
But at their best, the Flaming Lips are able to take these songs and albums that, at their core, are happily melodic, and turn them inside out — infusing real emotion and dark themes while keeping what makes them work, making the entire enterprise sound like no one else. It’s easy to fall into a trap of just leaning on a template of bizarre sound effects and, while the results would still be good, it doesn’t reach the transcendent levels of work from the past.
That doesn’t seem to be the case here. American Head sounds like a solid record at its core, with a real point of view and a timeless message, and it’ll be entertaining to lean on it in the coming months to see how much more it has to offer. Anything can happen, but I’m optimistic.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org