The Flaming Lips’ ‘American Head’ is sobering tragedy

The Flaming Lips
Warner Records/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Aldous Huxley wrote that taking psychedelic drugs is valuable, not only because they provide opportunity for insight and self-reflection, but also because they allow for what he called “a less self-centered and more creative life.” The psychedelic, however, is not all peaches and cream, and The Flaming Lips address this on their new album, American Head.

The Flaming Lips have long been familiar with the psychedelic. American Head jumps straight into the sonic universe they have long worked to create, as dreamy and airy as ever. However, where previous albums used this hallucinatory aesthetic to tell tales of spaceships and pink robots, American Head essentially uses it against itself. The drug-filled stories it tells are tragedies.

“Brother Eye” is one of the album’s most representative tracks. Its paced, digital reverberations nod underneath lyrics about brotherhood and immortality. Out of context, its robotic vocals are simply marching along, reciting their lyrical orders. But knowing about the deaths of several band members’ family and friends, it is heartbreaking in its modesty. 

Pain hides in the gentle sounds of American Head. While “You n Me Sellin’ Weed” presents itself as softly romantic, it conceals a bleak story of murder and “magic trees.” A few annoying moments crop up: bloops and sound effects that frustrate the song’s message. Still, these only temporarily interrupt the themes of misfortune and misery that pervade throughout the album.

These themes are broader than the lyrics alone, and stretch into the rather poetic realm of nonmeaning. The title of “Assassins of Youth” doesn’t purposefully signify anything. Instead, it’s about extracting deep, emotional meaning from total nothingness. The song is one of the album’s more danceable tracks, but it, like all of the songs on American Head, provides ample ambience and atmosphere for the listener.

“At the Movies on Quaaludes” feels like stepping out of a matinee. It is uncomfortably bright, like the sun beaming down after two hours spent in a dark room. It never lets up, continuously noisy. Like leaving a movie theater, the songs on American Head are meant to feel like coming out of one reality and entering into another, with the revelation that one is totally fictional.

This is the nature of art, and it is the nature of drugs. The Flaming Lips recognize the creation of an alternate reality and seem to condemn it in the softest of terms. On “At the Movies on Quaaludes,” Wayne Coyne sings of destroyed brains and famous fools, wasted time and tragic lives.

Regret comes up a lot on American Head. “Will You Return / When You Come Down” is a plunge into ice water. It is the lore of a once-naive protagonist who sees the ghosts of dead friends and reflects on the drugs that led them there. The protagonist of “Mother I’ve Taken LSD” may be even worse off, singing that LSD has exposed “the sadness in the world” and telling stories of drugstore robberies and motorcycle crashes.

It is, in a word, sobering. These ideas make “Watching the Lightbugs Glow” a pitiful experience, as if a singer is hopelessly high, clawing at lyrics in the hopes that they will manifest. They never do. Instead, the vocals are unintelligible, a failed attempt at self-expression. American Head is grim.

With the concepts of crime, death, family and drugs that the album wallows in, one could be forgiven in believing that it never gets better. Surrounded by such tragedy, what is to be done? For many, the answer may be religion, but that’s not the style of The Flaming Lips. On “My Religion Is You,” Coyne sweetly professes a different, individual spiritualism, without denigrating or even criticizing other systems of faith.

This intertwining of drugs and religion appropriately ties back to Aldous Huxley, who died on the same day as the resolutely Christian author C.S. Lewis. Their deaths, however, were overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on the same day: Nov. 22, 1963. Until American Head, only this day could appropriately sum all of the album’s ideas.

But these are coincidences. For all the mythologizing and storytelling of artists and addicts, it will end in naught but death — so say The Flaming Lips.

Crew Bittner covers music. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.