There is a rich and varied history of musicians trying to capture their personal vision of ‘America’ on record, attempting to reach beyond all its myriad connotations and contradictions and pin down its core essence. Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’, The Grateful Dead’s ‘American Beauty’, Johnny Cash’s ‘American Recordings’, LCD Soundsystem’s ‘American Dream’, The Offspring’s ‘Americana’… the list goes on and on.
Inevitably these projects reveal far more about the inner life and thoughts of their creators than they ever do about the spirit of the nation itself. On The Doors’ ‘An American Prayer’ Jim Morrison finds the heart of America in the sweaty desperation of sex, on ‘American Teen’ Khalid finds the heart of America in the confused innocence of youth, on ‘American Life’ Madonna finds the heart of America in, well, Madonna.
On their sixteenth record ‘American Head’ (perhaps the most accurately titled album since Lewis Capaldi unleashed ‘Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent’ on the world), The Flaming Lips make it quite clear that they’ve found the essence of America in taking loads of drugs and gazing at the stars in wonder. Given that all fifteen albums proceeding it were also, to one degree or another, about taking loads of drugs and gazing at the stars in wonder, one can deduce that this has more to do with the essential nature of the Flaming Lips than it does with the essential nature of America.
It also means that, despite bandleader Wayne Coyne’s claims that this is something of a concept album inspired by Tom Petty’s sojourn in Tulsa with his old band Mudclutch and written from the perspective of a made-up 70s heartland rock group (who, wouldn’t you know it, also took a lot of made-up drugs); this album for the most of its runtime remains parked back in the Flaming Lips’ wheelhouse.
Sure, the piano-led, yacht rock plod of ‘Will You Return/When You Come Down’ and ‘Flowers Of Neptune 6’ pretty neatly mixes the sound of Elton John at his most strung-out into the Lips’ signature psychedelic soup. Elsewhere a squelchy surf-rock solo cuts through the otherwise self-parodic ‘Dinosaurs On The Mountain’ (sample lyric – “I wish the dinosaurs were still here now, It’d be fun to see them playing on the mountains”), while the light-hearted ‘You n Me Sellin’ Weed’ takes a brief detour into Johnny Cash-esque outlaw country before descending into a chorus of mooing cows because, hey, The Flaming Lips.
Sonically, however, this record remains far more indebted to the English prog-folk masters of the late 60s and early 70s than it does to any classic Americana from the same era. ‘American Head’ shares more DNA with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Greg Lake-era King Crimson, Phil Shulman-era Gentle Giant and even pre-Ziggy Stardust David Bowie than it does with The Heartbreakers, The Eagles or the E Street Band. Even the occasional usage of ‘808s & Heartbreak’-style vocoders and the presence of country singer Kacey Musgraves can’t make the Flaming Lips sound even vaguely American.
Wayne Coyne’s lyrics occasionally aim to capture some of the small-town desperation of a Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp, referencing go-nowhere greasers and bikers with names like Johnny and Tommy. More often than not, however, he reverts to his usual themes: spaceships, magic forests and the undimmed majesty of the milky way. The album even ends on another atheistic love ballad ‘My Religion Is You’, retreading the same ground that the band conquered definitively 17 years ago on ‘Do You Realize?’.
None of this does makes ‘American Head’ a bad record. The Flaming Lips have been refining their singular vein of psychedelia for almost four decades now, and they’re been damn good at it. But if they were seeking to discover a new facet of their identity and tap into their nature as a truly American band, as Coyne stated was the aim here, then ‘American Head’ is a pretty abject failure on its own terms. Nevertheless, if you were planning on taking a big bag of mushrooms and gazing at the stars tonight, well, then music doesn’t get much better than this.
Words: Josh Gray
- - -
- - -
Join us on the ad-free creative social network Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks, exclusive content and access to Clash Live events and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.