With a name like The Flaming Lips, it’s hard to imagine this band spitting anything other than absolute fire. And with that obvious joke out of the way, we may begin. The Flaming Lips has, amazingly, been around since the mid-1980s, however its stardom only rose in the early 2000s thanks to the glorious one-two punch of 1999’s “The Soft Bulletin” and 2002’s “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” the latter of which is arguably its greatest work to date.
Since then, The Flaming Lips has released a decent armload of records at a fairly conventional pace for an experimental rock band. Its offering for 2020 titled “American Head,” released Sept. 11, is certainly not in the same ballpark as “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” Few modern records are, but it nonetheless reminds listeners exactly why The Flaming Lips deserve to retain your attention in this day and age.
Any act that bills itself as experimental or innovative must walk a delicate balance between its desire to be original and the demands placed upon it as professional musicians. The Flaming Lips’ discography is an expansive one, and as such it is more than likely it will end up treading water in some places. There's nothing inherently wrong or dubious about this practice; it simply means that whatever you put out as a placeholder has different ambitions than your traditional work. See also Willie Nelson putting out an entire album just to pay his taxes, or King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard releasing four LPs in one year for no apparent reason, but that’s another story. “American Head” is not trying to one-up the Lips’ past work, not by any means. What it is, however, is a low-stakes exercise in creativity that ought to draw the listener back into the world of The Flaming Lips.
The album opens with the soft and smooth motions of “Will You Return/When You Come Down,” which sets the mood for the rest of the record: slow, contemplative, consistent. The whole album has a dreamlike feeling not entirely dissimilar to some of their other work. There's a lot of quiet acoustic guitar, whispery and distorted vocals, and murky piano lines serving as the connective tissue of this album, which is one of the reasons I say that it might not exactly be reaching for the stars, as this trifecta of elements tend to be the standard operating point for a lot of alternative music.
However, the Lips do an admirable job making something special out of it. “Dinosaurs on the Mountain” displays the album at its most wistful, utilizing the keyboard to great effect. “At the Movies on Quaaludes” is probably the closest the album comes to intensity, having some fairly prominent drum work. A close second is “Mother I’ve Taken LSD,” which will probably be regarded as the album’s best track.
“American Head” is hardly revolutionary, but that doesn’t make this record bad by any stretch. The listener’s opinion on the album will vary depending on what exactly they wanted out of it. Anyone expecting this album to change their life, like “Yoshimi” might have at one point, are sure to be disappointed. But others who just wanted more out of the Flaming Lips will be elated that their favorite band is still kicking.
Whatever its subjective merits, “American Head” is concerned primarily with reminding the listeners that The Flaming Lips can still expertly put a list of songs together like a band with a nearly 40-year long career ought to be able to.
Its critical flaw may also be its only reason for existing, that the band doesn’t really have anything better to release. One could argue that a band like The Flaming Lips ought to have something more on its mind, and that such an album does a disservice to itself and its fanbase. But for what it's worth, it's a half-decent Flaming Lips album that will hopefully lead into something more satisfying down the road. And in that sense, one must suppose, the album is a success. I give “American Head” 3/5 stars.