Things got a little strange when The Flaming Lips started bringing in their "fwends". Their 2012 affair featured the likes of Bon Iver, Nick Cave, Yoko Ono, and Erykah Badu among many odd other choices. It was the first time in a decade that the group made something that didn't feel like a cohesive project and more like an eclectic collection of songs, and the group followed that up two years later with yet another strange collaborative album. Thankfully there was the exceptional release of The Terror to break up those projects.
From there Coyne and company continued to try new ideas including 24 hour long songs, concept albums about floating heads, and the poorly executed collaboration with Coyne's young bestie Miley Cyrus on Her Dead Petz album. It had been seven years since a project was warmly received and ten years since the group had been at the height of their consistency.
That's perhaps the backdrop that makes American Head almost jarring but certainly welcome. Comparatively, American Head may not just be the safest album the group have released in two decades but may rank as one of their most tame albums period. Perhaps safe isn't even the best word for this album, given that The Flaming Lips likely appeal to some of the oddest listeners of psychedelic noise, and taking such a large step back from that could sour long-time fans.
American Head is an album largely built out of intimate guitar sounds surrounded in atmospheric and serene soundscapes. It's most closely resembling both The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and after two decades removed from that sound the group obviously never missed a step. The whole album avoids odd electronic side roads and even features almost no other artists outside of the soothing backing vocals of Kacey Musgraves. It's The Flaming Lips buckling down and doing something that feels like them, but a distant them.
An additional element of the album that enhances its quality is the closeness one feels with the source material. Coyne rarely sings from a personal place, but throughout this album he explores some anxieties over drug use built out of his childhood over many songs, ranging from the pleasantly orchestrated opener Will You Return / When You Come Down to the more paranoid instrumentation on When We Die When We're High. Coyne also reflects on his near death experience on the song Mother, Please Don't Be Sad in a shocking piano ballad. It brings an intimacy from Coyne who often prefers to keep himself in a whimsical bubble away from the crowd below.
Ever since I saw The Flaming Lips a couple years ago I've had a deep affinity for their music; one of which that stretches back to hearing Yoshimi Battles as a kid. For someone who has wandered through the silly minds of one of the most strange acts known to man for all this time, taking this step back with them was a breathe of fresh air. I won't expect to see the group maintain this more gentle side of themselves, but I'll be sure to appreciate it while it's here.
Favorite track: Mother, Please Don't Be Sad