On this side of the Atlantic, the death of Tom Petty in 2017 did not trigger the sort of blanket news coverage that followed the demise of David Bowie, Prince or Kurt Cobain. On the night of Petty's death, The Flaming Lips played a show in Austin, Texas. They listened to the news unfold on a six-hour drive back to Oklahoma.
Petty's death partially inspired Wayne Coyne and company to embrace their American identity; as the singer notes, "for most of our musical life [as the Flaming Lips, starting in 1983] we kind of thought of ourselves as coming from Earth". Between May and August this year, the Lips released no less than six new singles. So half of American Head will already be familiar to hardcore fans.
Back around the turn of the millennium, The Flaming Lips were one of the most revered acts in the world. They didn’t enjoy substantial crossover success until their ninth album, The Soft Bulletin, in 1999, which topped several album of the year lists.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) saw them evolve into a festival-headlining carnival, complete with dancers dressed up as animals, confetti guns and Wayne Coyne walking through the crowd in an inflatable bubble. In 2003 they stepped up the bill at the eleventh hour at the last Witnness event in Punchestown, after a minor car crash involving Jack White forced the cancellation of a set by The White Stripes.
In 2020, the Lips are still in a reflective and psychedelic mood. Drug references abound on several tracks, namely Will You Return/When You Come Down, Mother, I’ve Taken LSD, At the Movies on Quaaludes, You n’ Me Sellin’ Weed, and When We Die When We’re High. The Flaming Lips have carved out a career entertaining people on drugs, but considering Wayne Coyne turns 60 in January, you’d think they might consider changing the tape.
Neither have the Lips achieved much by way of musical progression on American Head, which sounds like a mellow rehash of former glories. Assassins of Youth is the honourable exception, a highly original song lyrically and musically that deals with US school shootings and the brutality of modern life. They finish on another high with My Religion Is You, which was inspired by a conversation between Coyne and his mother when he was very young.
Family, death and doing drugs in suburbia preoccupy American Head, which flits between decent and dreary. The Flaming Lips have made much better records than this. While American Head isn’t exactly a turkey, it furthers the argument that their otherworldly friends in Mercury Rev are simply better at doing this sort of thing.