Gigantic bubbles have always been part of The Flaming Lips’ acts. Wayne Coyne, the band’s lead singer, frequently sings at concerts from within a bubble and crowd-surfs while he is in it, hands in the audience helping him to roll over them. It has become a sort of trademark for the eccentric band and its equally eccentric frontman. So after the covid-19 pandemic began and when the US non-profit media organisation NPR decided to move its iconic Tiny Desk Concerts to a “home” version, with musicians performing their stripped-down sets remotely, it didn’t come as a surprise to see how The Flaming Lips did it. They got into bubbles.
Apparently self-quarantining from each other by playing within separate bubbles, the band did a short set of songs that included new ones from their recently released 16th studio album, American Head. A few days later, the band performed yet another bubble-encased live concert in their home town, Oklahoma City. There wasn’t any crowd-surfing this time, and even the audience was in bubbles. Bizarre? Well, if it is The Lips we are talking about, such acts are par for the course.
The Flaming Lips (or Lips, as adoring fans call them) have been around for nearly four decades and each of their 16 studio albums (as also their four live video albums) pushes the boundaries and is directionally so different from earlier ones that they can confound critics. It’s well-nigh impossible to pigeonhole them.
So when people try to describe their genre, they tend to throw a bunch of labels at them: post-punk, experimental, psychedelic rock, alternative rock, and so on. Coyne, 59, and his colleagues in the band seem to delight in keeping people guessing. And, sometimes, they bowl a googly or two. In 2009, for instance, they released (in collaboration with other artists) a studio album titled The Flaming Lips And Stardeath And White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins And Peaches Doing The Dark Side Of The Moon, a track-by-track re-imagining of Pink Floyd’s famous and hugely influential 1973 album, The Dark Side Of The Moon.
Another oddball came in 2014, with the release of With A Little Help From My Fwends, a track-by-track re-imagining of another seminal album, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The collaborators included unlikely musicians such as pop singer Miley Cyrus.
But it is the Lips’ original albums that bring their real talent to the fore. When they began in the early 1980s, they were an underground band, finding fans in their home townbut not breaking through to the mainstream scene. That happened only with their sixth album, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, in 1993, and, especially, its unlikely hit track, She Don’t Use Jelly, with its weird lyrics (I know a girl who thinks of ghosts/ She’ll make you breakfast, she’ll make you toast/ But she does not use butter/ And she does not use cheese/ She does not use jelly, or any of these/ She uses Vaseline/ Vaseline/ Vaseline.)
It was with The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002) that the Lips cemented their position as one of rock’s significant bands. The Soft Bulletin is perhaps the band’s best album. Its rich, symphonically arranged soundscape, and songs that are intimate, personal and warm, make it an album that begs to be revisited often. Critics were almost unanimous in their praise. Yoshimi is an album with a simpler arrangement—it has less of the lushness of its predecessor—but it manages to create a diverse range of sounds. It has been called electronic art rock and in many senses, with its reference to sci-fi and robots (one of the songs is titled One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21 and is about robots developing emotions), it is a concept album.
While these albums catapulted the Lips to the top, their records were erratic in the years that followed. Experiments such as the collaborative cover albums were a novelty but not really that memorable. That changed in September, when the Lips released their latest full-length, American Head.
An album for these times, American Head recaptures the status the Lips won for themselves with The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi. Autobiographical, and replete with storytelling, it’s an album where Coyne looks back on his growing-up years during the 1970s.
Musically, the Lips have always been a bit unusual, a bit off-kilter. American Head is no different. There is a sense of loneliness that syncs seamlessly with the feelings many listeners may have experienced during these exceptional times. There are direct references to drugs (although the Lips are often associated with psychedelic music, there has rarely been direct mention of drugs in their past albums). At least two songs are about LSD; there are others about the destructive attributes of substances. But even those appear to be grounded in experiences of witnessing things that happened around Coyne when he was growing up.
Though American Head is inspired by Coyne’s experiences during his youth, those ruminations seem uncannily perfect for the (dampened) spirit of the times. All said, American Head is what could easily be described as the Lips’ ascent back to the top.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.