The Flaming Lips‘ frontman Wayne Coyne describes the backstory of American Head like this. He and the band were driving from a gig in Austin to Oklahoma City when they heard Tom Petty died. Coyne learned that before Petty and his group at the time, Mudcrutch, began their career in Los Angeles, their producer had them stop in Tulsa to rehearse and polish their sound. This would have been in the early 1970s. Coyne then imagined what would have happened if Petty and his older brothers and their drug-dealing biker friends connected. Perhaps the band would break up as a result and the Heartbreakers never happened. This album would be “the sad, homesick, naive songs they [Petty] would have written in this fucked-up (wonderful) and depressed (ecstatic) state of mind”. The music is an attempt to capture that feeling.
One doesn’t need to understand the underlying narrative of American Head to appreciate the music, but it helps. The 13 tracks combine dark and light motifs in weird ways that are somber and strange yet oddly cheerful at the same time. It’s that mix of feelings like when one is too high and doesn’t know if one is going to puke or die or achieve nirvana, as described in the song “When We Die When We’re High”. Each cut delivers a different story about the imagined characters and where their heads were at. It’s a real-life fantasy, with all the contradictions that term implies. There are reminiscences of actual scenarios blended together with ones that never happened.
Take the ballad, “Mother, I’ve Taken LSD”. Coyne said he remembers the moment as a child when his brother said this to his mother. The music is spookily psychedelic and sad. Coyne didn’t want his older sibling to go crazy or die, which were the rumors concerning LSD at that time. We hear about the situation filtered through Coyne’s boyhood consciousness, but also recollected now in tranquility. We never get over the fears we had as a youth even if we have outgrown them.
Many of the songs, like the previously mentioned ones, are explicitly about drugs. This is clear on cuts with titles like “You n’ Me Sellin’ Weed”, “At the Movies on Quaaludes” and “Will You Return/When You Come Down”. However, even the more fanciful tracks, such as “Flowers of Neptune 6”, “God and the Policeman”, and “Watching the Light-Bugs Glow” concern the taking of illegal substances. Incidentally, Kacey Musgraves provides additional vocals on all three of these cuts.
While Coyne seems mostly responsible for the lyrics, all the songs are credited to the entire band (Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins, Derek Brown, Jake Ingalls, Matt Kirksey, Nicholas Ley). It’s impossible to decipher who created what, but their contributions should not be overlooked. This is a Flaming Lips record, not a Coyne solo effort.
The most playful cut is “Dinosaurs on the Mountain”, allegedly inspired by the request of the nine-year-old son of the recording engineer to write a song about dinosaurs. Coyne said the comment reminded him of family trips taken as a young child and the innocence he felt about the world back then. This mindset blends in with the album’s most beautiful cut, “My Religion Is You”. It’s a tribute to Coyne’s mother. The bond between a parent and child can be stronger than any other human connection, and certainly tighter than one between a youth and god. As one gets older, a person can find flaws in one’s maternal and paternal figures. But when young, Coyne notes how sweet the feeling of adoration can be.
American Head’s individual tracks can be enjoyed separately, but the album is best enjoyed as a whole. Think of it as a meditation on family, friends, getting older, and the irony of feeling lost in the world the more one learns about it. It’s a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn’t want to return to but never wants to forget.