The Flaming Lips Return to Earth on Devastatingly Beautiful American Head:

The Lowdown: Looking back now, it feels safe to say that the ’10s represent something of a lost decade in the long, strange journey of The Flaming Lips. After ushering in the new millennium with a pair of unlikely mid-career classics (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) and closing out the ’00s with unexpectedly muscular rock fanfare (2009’s Embryonic), Wayne Coyne and his merrymakers spent most of the next 10 years getting into tabloid feuds, recording scattershot side projects, and cosplaying as Miley Cyrus’ acid-casualty uncles.

The Flaming Lips records they did manage felt like dispatches relayed from a derelict space station, about sonic landscapes too grim (2013’s The Terror) or fried (2017’s Oczy Mlody) or daft (2019’s The King’s Mouth) to warrant revisiting. With all of that in mind, it’s easy to see why this quote from frontman Wayne Coyne in American Head’s press materials warranted intrigue: “For the first time in our musical life, we began to think of ourselves as ‘an American band.’” After a decade lost in space, The Flaming Lips were headed back to Earth. How would they feel about what they found?

The Good: If you’re looking for a record that sums up the state of the American Dream in 2020, you could do worse than American Head, which finds The Flaming Lips energized by elegies inspired by Coyne’s teen years in Oklahoma with “[his] older brothers and their drug-dealing biker friends.” Across the record’s 13 tracks, Coyne relives these times and, in the process, tackles the lure of nostalgia, the longing for escape, and the inevitability of aging and its effect on relationships with the fresh-eyed wonder of a man just awoken from a long, long slumber.

This rediscovery begins with the gentle repeated question that forms the title of opener “Will You Return / When You Come Down”. The song captures the sense of fragile mortality at the heart of Yoshimi and Soft Bulletin, this time made all the more powerful by the sense of lonesome aftermath that accompanies it. “All your friends are dead/ And they’re ghosts floating ’round your bed,” Coyne croons, his voice descending through a swirl of bittersweet keys and chimes and backing vox like distant radios. It’s the kind of devastation you want to experience again and again.

From there, American Head unfolds as a record about consequences, with Coyne offering a guide for living out the long years after a misspent youth. The results are intermittently breathtaking: “Dinosaurs on the Mountains” turns a half-remembered night on a family road trip into a mournful meditation on childhood innocence, “At the Movies on Quaaludes” reconstructs the warped sense of youthful possibility that fades with age and choices, and “Brother Eye” writes a devastating plea to a troubled sibling anchored by gut-wrenchingly desperate lines like “You were born/ And the dark was changed.” Throughout, Coyne resists drawing easy conclusions, content to remember, report, and wonder what it all meant right along with us.

Coyne’s revitalized confessional lyricism is matched and then some by the inventive, inviting arrangements from masterminds Steven Drozd, Dave Friedmann, and Scott Booker. American Head shimmers with sonic touches that often seem to mimic the natural world; you’ll catch the pulsing of fireflies on “Watching the Lightbugs Glow”, the concentric waves of raindrops in “God and the Policeman”, and even the subtle inhalations and exhalations of the lovers at the heart of “You n Me Sellin’ Weed”. They not only make the record feel like its own living entity, but heighten the tension of inorganic moments like the post-radioactive Morse code beeps that add sickbed sorrow to “Brother Eye” or the dayglo Four Horsemen gallop that revs up the early section of “Assassins of Youth”.

The Bad: Ear-catching production flourishes aside, American Head is a record defined and dominated by mid-tempo balladry. While that stripped-down foundation suits the material well in most cases, the uniformity of that relatively languid pace sometimes leaves the record feeling stretched past its 50-minute runtime. It also opens up the temptation to slide into mawkishness; neo-murder ballad “Mother, Please Don’t Be Sad” aspires to the same kind of profundity of classics like “Waiting on Superman” and “Do You Realize??” but instead gets lost in its own anodyne sentimentality. Coyne’s told this song’s story before (it’s sourced from the fateful armed robbery he experienced as a teen fry cook at Long John Silver’s) and in better ways than this.

The Verdict: The best records in The Flaming Lips catalog are the ones that find the balance between the band’s penchant for fried psychedelic whimsy and the uncanny tenderness that underpins Coyne’s songwriting. For the first time in nearly two decades, they’ve rediscovered this winning formula. As a result, American Head stands alongside The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots as one of the very best records The Flaming Lips have recorded and should be required listening for anyone who’s gone on their own quarantine-induced walk down memory lane in search of a way to survive this year.

Essential Tracks: “Will You Return / When You Come Down”, “Dinosaurs on the Mountain”, and “Brother Eye”

Pick up a copy of The Flaming Lips’ American Head here.

Artist of the Month Anjimile’s Giver Taker Is a Startlingly Beautiful Prayer to the Present: Review

The Lowdown: Anjimile Chithambo might be new to the spotlight, but he’s been paying attention for a long time. His debut album, Giver Taker, carries a wide variety of influences — among them church choirs, ’80s pop, African music, and indie-folk — and melds them together as if they were born for this, born to flow into one another. The Boston-based trans musician wrote much of Giver Taker while in treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, and many of the songs are also concerned with his experiences coming out as trans and non-binary. As such, the entire album is papered with transformation, but through lenses of tenderness: the love implicit in confessions and the awe of one’s own resilience in the face of socialization and struggle.

The Good: Would that I could just plop every single lyric from this album on here and let that be the review. Alas, I can’t — but they really are that beautiful, from end to end. Calming and profound, the lyricism throughout Giver Taker speaks to the divinity of connection, the search for self-comprehension, and the discovery of holiness therein. Anjimile’s keen instinct for poetry arises in the heartrending lullaby “Not Another Word”, in verses like, “I came howling after God/ Won’t you set things right/ Mend my mind, untie my knot/ Calm me through the night,” and, “To the sky I raise my head/ Won’t you set me straight/ Will I live to shake the dead/ Will I crumble from the weight.” “Giver Taker” offers another shrewd poetic moment with, “As you rest/ May you find/ Peace of heart/ Peace of mind/ Mine is yours/ Yours is mine/ Or divine/ Or design.”

This observation of holy experience breathes well in the lyrics, but it isn’t confined to them. The entire album benefits from church-like atmospherics that speak to Anjimile’s past as a choir singer as well as his love for acoustic, soft-spoken folk. From the winds and strings intertwined in its opening notes all the way through to the end, the makeup of Giver Taker is one of careful brushstrokes of indie guitars and blooming backgrounds, sweeping from song to song and anchored by deliberate points of clarity throughout. “Baby No More” brings a welcome old-timey feeling in its lounging jauntiness, its refrain of “Am I/ Not supposed to hurt you?/ Am I/ Not supposed to make you cry?” subtly recalling Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. In keeping with the themes of fluidity, change, and self-definition being sacred concepts, all of the songs feel guided by their own innate rhythms — like the soft percussion on “1978” or the subdued but striking conga pattern that takes over from the consistent guitar plucks in “To Meet You There”.

The Bad: Comparisons to Sufjan Stevens are already aplenty and earned — the style in Giver Taker’s arrangements, with melodic vocals punctuating a percussive, folksy undertone, will feel quickly familiar to Sufjan fans. This doesn’t feel like a strictly negative thing because Anjimile does achieve the effect so well and so organically — it’s more that Anjimile’s own unique voice in some places risks being surfaced by the recognizability of his influences. He is already an artist well posed to be, himself, an inspiration and an influence to many others, by virtue of both his musical styles and his compassionate candor — Giver Taker offers a stunning glimpse at what this influence will look like, but hasn’t quite reached the finish line of having its own singular sound. Then again, with the album itself being so crucially about growth and the feeling of standing at a juncture, maybe the snapshot of a journey not quite finished is the whole point.

The Verdict: A debut album can often feel like an announcement or an artist statement: something that says, This is me, and this is my music. Anjimile unites that self-consciousness with an exploratory intention — one that asserts that to be lost isn’t the same thing as to be aimless, and to be questioning of something isn’t to not also be sure and steady. He is already in a place of growth from one self into the next, and he’s not afraid for us to meet him there.

Essential Tracks: “1978”, “Not Another Word”, and “To Meet You There”

Pick up a copy of Anjimile’s Giver Taker here.

Viggo Mortensen’s Falling Offers Repetition and Expletives, But No Payoff: TIFF Review

This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Pitch: In Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, gay Air Force pilot John (Mortensen) struggles to care for his ailing conservative father, Willis (Lance Henriksen). Malcontent and never afraid to shy away from a racist, homophobic or sexist rant, Willis offends everyone from John’s husband Eric (Terry Chen) to his daughter Sarah (Laura Linney), all while he slips in and out of flashbacks, including his two marriages to wives Gwen (Hannah Gross) and Jill (Bracken Burns).

Grumpy Old Man: Early in Falling, as the relationship between John and Willis is being established, it’s clear that Henriksen is exceptional in the role. Willis is the kind of curmudgeonly character whose edges are too often softened in Hollywood dramas and the elder genre vet clearly relishes the opportunity to take on the role of despicable old crank.

Everyone and everything is fair game to Willis, whose mean streak extends into flashbacks from the children’s life on the farm. It’s immediately evident that Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) raised his children and treated his wife in very specific, hyper-masculine ways: boys wake up early and go hunting; women prepare the food and clean up the dirt tracked in from outdoors.

In one memorable moment, Willis’ first wife Gwen asks him to put out his cigarette and help her cut John’s 10th birthday cake and he spews a litany of expletives at her – and their living room full of guests – before stomping out. These scenes clarify that Willis’ disease isn’t to blame for his abrasive behavior. He’s always been this way…it’s just that now he’s dying.

Old & Tired: The main argument against Falling is that its central character is an unlikeable dinosaur whose dementia ensures he will never change. Willis isn’t just frustrating for his family, he’s also a chore for the audience watching the film. What begins as an intriguing character study and a strong role for Henriksen quickly becomes shrill and one-note because Willis can’t evolve. There’s nothing here except Willis’ incessant hate-fuelled rants, which quickly become repetitive and increasingly more frustrating to watch.

Willis is clearly an ill-man and the moments where he forgets what he has already asked — or demanded – is a telling portrait of an elderly man losing his faculties. The issue is that Falling never expands to elaborate why its audience should care, or even to elaborate why John is making the effort. Mortensen’s script simply repeats the same abusive interactions, defined by John’s refusal to take the bait while the supporting characters get angry, sullen or crack jokes to break the tension.

But repeating the same scene in different settings with rotating supporting characters for two-hours merits some kind of emotional payoff or catharsis and Falling never delivers on that front.

Falling TIFF Review

Falling (Modern Films)

Back To Nature: Thankfully Falling is shot and edited exceptionally well. This is particularly evident in the idyllic way that nature is visually represented, particularly Willis’ flashbacks to life on the farm. Close-ups of wheat, running water, and wide-open spaces capture the nostalgic, idealistic yearning for “simpler times”. This provides a nice juxtaposition to Willis’ perceived (and ill-informed) notions about life in the city, and more specifically his son and daughter’s liberal California lifestyle.

In one scene at a family brunch in John’s backyard, Sarah comments on John’s landscaping work, reflecting on its transition to something beautiful from the original barren lot. Intriguingly, Mortensen’s camera never reveals more than the table where everyone sits, resolutely refusing to confirm Sarah’s claim. The only true nature shot in present-day occurs when Willis sneaks away from another lunch to visit the beach, where he wades into the waist high water, caught somewhere between dementia and euphoria.

What’s ironic, then, is when the action relocates to Willis’ beloved farm for the last act those warm, welcoming flashback memories are contrasted by the cold present day reality. The farm isn’t vibrant and nostalgic; it has a water-stained roof and unwelcoming animal pens. The disconnect between memory and reality is just another example of how Willis has become unmoored from the world around him, in addition to foreshadowing his impending death.

The Verdict: Despite great direction by Mortensen, who also delivers a strong performance alongside Henriksen and (briefly) Linney, Falling is a repetitive and exhausting exercise that never gets around to unpacking why the audience should care about its ailing patriarch character. It’s too long and too one note for too little pay-off.

Where’s It Playing? Falling tumbles into theaters on December 4th.