The Flaming Lips' Stripped-Down 'American Head' Feels Like a Retreat Rather Than a Step Forward

BY David RobbPublished Sep 14, 2020

For better or worse, the Flaming Lips have never been a band who are likely to stay in one place for very long. After their late '90s/early '00s commercial peak, 2009's remarkable Embyronic paved the way for a scattershot decade that saw them taking their sound into some dark and fascinating new places, as well as doubling down on their cloying earnestness and disregard for notions of indie credibility. On their latest release, American Head, Wayne Coyne and the gang now seem to be moving away from both the electronic experimentation and the Miley Cyrus collabs for the time being, and they've recorded what might be the most straightforward set of songs in their career to date.

Featuring mostly piano or acoustic guitar ballads that are relatively unembellished, the album is a reminder of how influential classic rock staples like Neil Young, Pink Floyd and the Beatles have always been on Coyne's songwriting and vocal style, and songs like "You n Me Sellin' Weed" or "Mother Please Don't Be Sad" aim for the disarming lyrical simplicity of some of his best work. However, without the Lips' trademark guitar fuzz, electronic noise or symphonic grandeur, it just doesn't hit with the same force. Guest vocals from Kacey Musgraves provide an interesting counterpoint to Coyne's reedy emoting on penultimate track "God and the Policeman," but its basic melody still struggles to get off the ground.

Discussing the album's title in interviews, Coyne explained his desire to be more conscious of his origins and his place in the world, and he perhaps felt a need to speak more directly to the recent political turmoil that has engulfed his country. For a band that's spun fanciful yarns from the farthest reaches of time and space and the inner recesses of their own minds, this grounded perspective could be another interesting change of direction. But for now, it feels more like a retreat.

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