For over 30 years The Flaming Lips have been unapologetic, ground breaking, and refusing to change with the times or any trends. However, since their incredible run with Yoshimi, The Soft Bulletin, and At War With the Mystics; the Lips have really not pursued anything other than artistic expansion and nostalgic appreciation.
With much of their early experimental work remastered, live releases, collaborations with Deap Valley, Mick Jones of the Clash, and many big names on cover albums, Wayne Coyne and company find themselves in a very comfortable place in their career.
For most of their original work of the past 15 years, The Lips have explored the space of their own sound and aged frankly, incredibly well, which is more than most bands can say from 1986. However, any honest Flaming Lips fan will say that the band is in a sort of legacy act phase with their live performances. Even recently celebrating 20 years since their critically celebrated album The Soft Bulletin.
So where does a band go now? One who has essentially free range to try anything at this point in their career? Naturally, an elegant existential exploration into the American psyche and what it means to be an American band.
It probably comes as no surprise but The Flaming Lips, much like David Bowie or Pink Floyd, have spent their entire careers creating this almost other worldly experience with their music and facade. For years Wayne Coyne and fellow band members would say that they were from Earth, not their home Oklahoma City. Not out of shame, actually the contrary, Coyne is incredibly proud of his home and his upbringing and story is truly American.
“The Flaming Lips are from Oklahoma. We never thought of ourselves as an American band,” said Wayne Coyne, lead singer of the Flaming Lips. “I know growing up (when I was like 6 or 7 years old) in Oklahoma I was never influenced by, or was very aware of any musicians from Oklahoma. We mostly listened to the Beatles and my mother loved Tom Jones… it wasn’t till I was about 10 or 11 that my older brothers would know a few of the local musician dudes.”
From being one of six in an Irish Catholic Family, where Coyne and his siblings would refer to themselves as “the fearless freaks,” for their rough backyard football games; to late nights behind the fryer at Long John Silver’s, where he would work well into the bands early years. Coyne’s story is quintessentially a post counter-cultural American dream. Where Americans began questioning social norms, and could succeed on their most insane ideas.
So, when it came time to begin working on their next album the Lips began to question, what does it mean to be American and an American Band?
“For most of our musical life (as The Flaming Lips starting in 1983) we’ve kind of thought of ourselves as coming from “Earth,” Coyne said. “Not really caring where we were actually from. So for the first time in our musical life we began to think of ourselves as “An American Band.” Telling ourselves that it would be our identity for our next creative adventure. We had become a 7-piece ensemble and were beginning to feel more and more of a kinship with groups that have a lot of members in them. We started to think of classic American bands like The Grateful Dead and Parliament-Funkadelic and how maybe could embrace this new vibe.”
On September 11th, The Flaming Lips released their 21st studio album American Head. An album that harkens back to the cinematic, grandiose sounds of Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin. Though you won’t find those singles, or catchy hooks on this album that those others had but, The Lips don’t need those anymore.
The trend of music in the past decade has slowly shifted towards the ambient, the exploratory sound that puts listeners in a trans and puts you into the world or setting of the artists. Look at Chill Wave or LoFi, Tame Impala is arguable the biggest “rock” bands in the world right now and they too lean heavily on the space that Kevin Parker creates in their sound. You will not get up out of your seat for any of the songs on American Head but you will lose yourself in its beauty.
This isn’t new either, for anyone who has followed the career of The Lips, they have been creating these big ambient sounding albums that could soundtrack an acid trip, for over 20 years. It’s that time has caught up with them again, and maybe for the best, during times like this where America especially seems lost we can always lose ourselves in music.
American Head is clearly influenced by American sounds, with songs like “Flowers Of Neptune,” and “God and the Policeman,” featuring Kasey Musgraves on vocals, the two pair to create a space-like desert western. Merging the best experiential aspects of the Flaming Lips and almost that Bakersfield Country Western idea of Manifest Destiny and making it out West, only now the West is Neptune.
The album is also the most overtly political they’ve made but, they aren’t bashing you over the head with it. With references to religion, the police, and the American ideology The Lips try and make sense of the world they live in now and where they fit into it. They question these ideas of cult like tendencies that America seems to face and yet they continue carving their own path.
Much of the track titles focus on drug use as well, with “Mother I’ve Taken LSD,” to “You N’ Me Sellin’ Weed,” to lyrics talking about tripping on acid and losing one’s ego. This isn’t new territory in anyway for the Pysch-rockers but the overt nature of the topic could be attributed to American’s obsession with drug use and where it can take us. It has been an integral part of our culture for years and in many ways it is uniquely American to experiment with psychedelics.
At a time where nothing makes sense, The Flaming Lips are the last place you want to turn to for any semblance of normalcy. But, for those looking to escape reality for just 60 minutes, they should put their faith in The Flaming Lips.
American Head is available everywhere today, form Warner Records.