Few active rock bands consistently bring the weird like The Flaming Lips. Resonant, immersive sonic experiences are the band’s calling card. On American Head, their 16th studio album, Wayne Coyne and company explore somber tones and rapturous uplift. An atmospheric yet somewhat gentle affair, the record nevertheless skirts abrasiveness at the edges while plotting a course of grainy focus through tech-damaged modernism.
Bandleader Wayne Coyne‘s plaintive croon guides the course. The musical collages act as oozing expressionist canvases to which his voice brings lines of definition. The songs mesh like entries in a series, connected by themes of human bonds, existential limitations and ultimate longing.
Coyne’s enduring cohort of multi-instrumentalists—Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins—add plenty of color of their own. Though melodically straightforward, the songs are embellished with a plethora of accents and ephemeral visitations of sound. The album leads the listener down wayward paths with a smattering of twists and turns, fake-outs and abrupt shifts.
Album opener and single “Will You Return/When You Come Down” begins with the briefest passage of churning machine dissonance before heavily reverb-laden guitar leads into a fragile space meditation. Coyne’s impassioned vocals address heavy subject matter. “Ghosts floating around your bed/ Hear it said/ All your friends are dead,” he sings, setting the scene with a disembodying of the psyche. The song balances subtle tender verse against soaring ethereal choruses, at last grinding down with distorted, cello-like synth bass.
The Flaming Lips’ mastery of stereo saturation triggers an overwhelming wave effect—when cranked—which sets the band apart from its more twiddly indie rock competition. Forceful low-frequency flange nudges listeners out of their head-spaces and into the heart of the mix. The instrumental “When We Die When We’re High” pulses insistently; a soundtrack to a paranoia become routine. Shadows seem to chase each other around a reverberating and zoned-out bedroom.
Oddly, the album is front-loaded with subtle down-tempo songs that largely resemble one another. This creates a challenge for listeners anticipating a more bombastic entry from the Flaming Lips. “Flowers Of Neptune 6,” is a bit of an anti-climax in the context of the album—emphasizing the band’s dream-pop side. The song relies on a majestic chorus to pull it out of a rather sluggish verse before petering out half-heartedly. “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” charts a similar course.
But these are just quibbles, I admit. The main attraction is the all-encompassing soundscape as the glue that holds the record together. As a whole, the record is structurally sound. Shots of adrenaline avail themselves here and there as the album progresses, such as on the superb “Assassins Of Youth.” At the appropriate volume—that is, loud—the nuances give form to the greater vagaries. It is indeed one of The Flaming Lips’ lasting gifts that they are able to package their statements so appealingly in such aural fog.
On the melodic American Head, the band’s pop sensibility is evident, if not eminent. Throughout the LP, the melodies linger just out of reach, behind a veil of psychedelic haze. “Dinosaurs On The Mountain” begins with the earnest straightforwardness of Guided By Voices, following a cutesy keyboard tinkle. Then suddenly, the song lurches at massive organ chords and compression effects eject the vocals into a half-intelligible orbit. Conceptually, the contrast recalls the smallness of human conception against the annals of deep time. Yet it also mirrors how Coyne’s persona serves the entirety of the sound, rather than the other way around. Coyne’s whimsical imagination gets partially buried in choral layers that posit grand and cacophonous movements.
Meanwhile, “Assassains Of Youth” crafts a successful salad of the weirdest ingredients in American Head’s kitchen. AutoTuned vocals herald a mélange of stereo oddities zooming in at surprise angles. Glassy bass and shrill guitar playing underpin a sincere sentiment lanced with laser sounds, 8-bit chiptune effects and techno woodblocks. It’s a strong addition that stretches the band’s range from the urgently anthemic to the achingly emotional.
Psychedelic warriors will be pleased by the many drug battles referenced in the song titles. Quaaludes, LSD, weed—they’re all here, right where The Flaming Lips would have them. The frequent drug references, placed alongside a thematic fixation on mothers and mortality, contribute to a slightly stifling listening experience. Luckily, these subjective themes are explored behind a well-crafted opacity that fertilizes a sense of wonderment—rather than manicuring absolute conclusions.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.