PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

Photo: George Salisbury / Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

American Head
The Flaming Lips

Warner Bros.

11 September 2020

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.