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The Flaming Lips’ ‘American Head’ Explores Life on Earth

4 Stars

"American Head" Album Cover.
"American Head" Album Cover. By Courtesy of The Flaming Lips/Warner Records
By Clara V. Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writer

During their storied presence in the alt-rock scene, Oklahoma-based rock group The Flaming Lips wove their melodies into entire universes inhabited by Martians and hostile pink robots. After decades of taking audiences on such far-flung sonic journeys, the band finally feels at home on Earth in their latest release. Their 16th studio album, “American Head,” confronts the complex legacy of their past with openness and warmth.

The first track, “Will You Return / When You Come Down,” greets listeners with a layered chord that carries a reverential expansiveness — until it abruptly cuts off after two seconds, to be replaced with a pointed and more inward-looking synth motif. The incisive simplicity of the lyrics, set in relief against a dreamlike backing track, lends the song its strength. Lead singer Wayne Coyne asks the titular question four times before painting the chilling image of “ghosts / Floating around your bed.” In an interview with Apple Music, Coyne named the ghosts as old friends who died before their time, dismantling his idealistic visions of seeing them in another life. “And all of these are just fantasies, so you really have to face the horrible truth that you’re never going to see that person again,” he said.

Country-pop trailblazer Kacey Musgraves makes several appearances on the album, including in the wordless, warbling melody of “Watching the Lightbugs Glow.” As Musgraves sings over a leisurely beat, mellow instrumentals rise and fall with her improvised vocals. Inspired by her memories of playing music for a firefly she had found on a leaf, the track further helps establish the album’s nostalgic mood

Many of the remaining eleven songs drift along with the same airy melancholy. With its celestial imagery and searching backdrop, “Flowers of Neptune 6” showcases the album’s characteristic instrumentation — a careful blend of synths and acoustics — at its best. Coyne describes the “powerful and personal” track as a more reflective companion to “Watching the Lightbugs Glow,” as well as a meditation on how music facilitates emotional sincerity. “You’d just be too embarrassed,” he said of expressing certain feelings in conversation. “But music wants you to go all the way.”

The similarly wistful “Dinosaurs on the Mountain” calls to mind the lull of a music box, which ties in beautifully with the song’s theme of childhood imagination. “I wish the dinosaurs were still here now / It’d be fun to see them playing on the mountains,” Coyne sings in the first verse. Like many of the album’s tracks, its lyrical precision evokes a universal longing for youth.

“Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” recounts Coyne’s thoughts during a robbery that occurred at his workplace. “I won’t see you tonight,” he thinks to his mother, his own devastation evident in the lyrics’ striking immediacy. The seamless transition into the next track, the aggressively uptempo “When We Die When We’re High,” is perhaps the album’s most memorable moment. The casually buoyant final track, “My Religion Is You,” also highlights Coyne’s close relationship with his mother. “It still feels like a folk song or religious song or something, but nothing in our life — my life, anyway — was ever so heavy that I had to turn to God,” Coyne said. “I always had my mother.” The chorus reinforces the strength of these feelings: “Nothing else is true / My religion is you.”

Despite the album’s heartfelt and often anecdotal lyrics, its preoccupation with creating a cohesive sound can, at times, place limits on its potential. That said, the floating instrumentals of “American Head” still succeed in conjuring the growing emotional distance between past and present. With their wisdom and perspective, The Flaming Lips do away with seeking inspiration in other worlds: They’ve shown that Earth is full of untold stories.

—Staff writer Clara Nguyen can be reached at clara.nguyen@thecrimson.com.

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