The Flaming Lips
No other band I can think of, save for maybe a mid-90s Sonic Youth, has enjoyed the freedom of wilful experimentation to levels of near self-sabotage as all the while they were supported (and sometimes encouraged) by a major label. Then again The Flaming Lips has only really come down to earth – they’ve been floating in space for most of their 35-year career making art-installations that frequently sound like pop songs and occasionally frustrate on a head-scratching level. American Head is their late charge at actually being An American Band. And what better band and album to guide us through 2020’s apocalyptic shit-storm, right? The Lips, after all, have been performing in their own protective bubble a long time before it became the new regulation. They hover – with their music – in a dream-like space, traversing nightmares ocassionally, they only ever flirt with the political but seek to strike deep into humanity.
American Head is a return to the wide-eyed wonder of the two albums that either re-birthed them or announced them to many of their fans, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots; forever brilliant and such a template – one the Lips have returned to and run away from in equal measures. These two mid-catalogue highlights have heart and soul even if both appear at first so heavily obfuscated. That’s Wayne Coyne’s greatest trick, particularly lyrically.
Since Yoshimi he’s taken the band down cartoon corridors of psychedelia – essentially revisiting their earliest arty-punk prankster experiments but on a bigger budget and with fewer worries about making the rent.
It hasn’t at all been bad by the way. As recently as 2017 with Oczy Mlody they all but knocked it out of the park. But Lips fans are fractured – there are those that want the one thing. And it’s almost never the one thing that Coyne and co feel like serving up right as expected.
But American Head has everything the Lips do so well, all the obvious tropes, the psych-rock and weary balladry, the hints of Floyd and Beatles and Beach Boys and CAN – churning grooves and heavenly melodies, sometimes all at once. But it’s all placed in the context, very much, of 2020. This is the Lips doing their twisted Americana in lockdown. And living through the unease of everything in Broken America. So those worldly, weary ballads suddenly become a lot more political. And beautifully so.
Mother Please Don’t Be Sad is the sort of song Coyne has delivered many times – but never quite in this way. Never with the potent backdrop of Black Lives Matter being in the front of so many minds as his narrator sings from the grave, “Mother don’t be sad, I didn’t mean to die tonight…their guns and their anger, and I lost the fight/The ambulance attendants did all they can/And I almost pulled through, but in the end I won’t see you tonight/Mother please don’t be sad”.
At the end of the first verse this ominous, Floyd-ian set of strings comes in. And I’m sorry, but this stony heart melted. I read, elsewhere, that it was too saccharine. Too much. I had to turn the album up even louder to distract me from penning an angry letter to that reviewer. (Fucking reviewers!)
Mother folds in on the instrumental that follows, When We Die When We’re High, a trick the Lips have done often and in this instance it is very reminiscent of some of Yoshimi’s highwater moments. Before that crazy CAN on Quaaludes bit I’m stuck thinking on the Dennis Wilson songs for the Beach Boys in the early 70s. Those over the top but beautiful ballads. Coyne’s never seemed more in that moment, his strained bleat almost breaking but you can imagine no other voice so perfectly conveying the words and emotions in these songs. Just as Dennis was the guy to lift the Beach Boys up and away from any Brian-less funk.
The inclusion of another voice on this album, when it does arrive, is welcome. First because it’s Kasey Musgraves (God And The Policeman, another song that’s not actually about Black Lives Matter but feels impossible to not hear it with that in mind) and secondly because in perverse Flaming Lips Logic-land it feels like a logical progression, and the grown-up melancholy version of when they were looking almost a bit too flirty for their age with Miley Cyrus.
This album is the grown-up melancholy version of so many things the Lips have said and done before.
It’s a glorious bummer.
And to me it’s a career-best. Up there, instantly, with Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi. And with some traces of the places they’ve flitted in and around across the last decade and a half. What a weird, and wonderful joyride that was. Joy is hard to find now but the ride is not quite done. I’m thankful to have them still at the wheel.
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