The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

Part 27 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

I recently was reminded of the fragile nature of life while reading a Philadelphia area newspaper (you can never leave home, remember?) and discovered that a middle school / high school classmate of mine had been killed in the line of duty – leaving behind a pregnant wife and young child. Mortality stares me in the face daily – my “social network” feed is suddenly filled with condolences from the class of 1995 and heartbreaking pictures of my classmate in action. Just a few days ago I had been getting fed up with the non stop political barrages, but they (almost) seem welcome now. As with anything that pops up unexpectedly in life – I sought solace in music and struggled to make sense of this absurd injustice. The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips asks all of these life questions and brilliantly ties everything into a package of hope, sadness, and longing.

In 1999 I only knew that The Flaming Lips had one hit song – “She Don’t Use Jelly” – that was part catchy / part annoying (my opinion has changed a bit over the years). I also knew that they had made a guest appearance on the television show Beverly Hills, 90210. None of that really appealed to me (though I am a closet fan of the TV show in all of its early 90’s glory). The press for the latest record The Soft Bulletin indicated that the new record was the best of the ‘Lips career and had possibly even outdone 1998’s opus by Mercury RevDeserter’s Songs (led by former Flaming Lips member, Jonathan Donahue). I made the familiar trek to The Princeton Record Exchange to pick up the CD, and played it twice on the way home. I was absolutely blown away – not only by the music, but by the philosophical nature of the lyrics. 13 years has done nothing to dampen the appeal of this record. (Note: The UK and US albums had different track listings. My review features all the songs since I ended up purchasing both versions).

Is it gettin’ heavy?

Race for the Prize – The 1st time I saw The Flaming Lips on the tour for this record I overheard multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd whisper right before the show “this is gonna be loud”. And what a statement for this opening track. Orchestrated pop featuring gong and theremin throughout. The drums simply explode of the speakers before the tune segues into more reflective passages. Have you ever heard the song about scientists racing for the cure for mankind? Yes – this is the one. Key lyrics:

Two scientists were racing
For the good of all mankind
Both of them side by side
So Determined
Locked in heated battle
For the cure that is their prize
But it’s so dangerous
But they’re determined

A Spoonful Weighs a Ton – Tempo slows way, way down for track #2. It does remind me of Mercury Rev, very much so. Wayne Coyne’s vocals show just the right mix of emotion and theatrics. Orchestral opening with aggressive bass and guitar coming into the mix at the 2 minute mark. A mutation of the old Flaming Lips (noisy with melody) with the new way of doing things. Key lyrics:

Yelling as hard as they can
The doubters all were stunned
Heard louder than a gun
The sound they made was love

The Spark That Bled – Drums once again very high in the mix, slower tempo song. Backing orchestration sounding like something out of The Wizard of Oz. On previous records Wayne Coyne’s vocals hinted at nuanced beauty – throughout this record it comes to fruition (I worked my way though the band’s back catalogue after discovering this record). The song progresses into a 70’s rock band kind of jam section with bass by Michael Ivins being a clear highlight.  Key lyrics:

From this moment on
Blaring like a trumpet
Coming from above us and somewhere below
The confidence of knowing
Descending to relieve us of the struggle
To believe it’s so

I stood up and I said, yeah!
I spoke up and I said, hey!
I stood up and I said, hey! Yeah!

Slow Motion – Slightly abrasive feeling after the earlier songs – an electronic feel to the song with orchestrations hanging in the background. Noisy guitar comes over top of everything before everything fades to feature Wayne’s voice. A deeper cut. Key lyrics:

It takes a year
To make a day
And I feel like a float
In the Macy’s Day Parade

What Is The Light? – Echoes, drums, and ghostly singing from Mr. Coyne. Perfect start to this track. There are sound f/x throughout the track that enhance its appeal. The song segues into a very strong melody without sacrificing its experimental nature. The music builds towards a crescendo that is very satisfying. Key lyrics:

What is the light
That you have
Shining all around you?
Is it chemically derived?

‘Cause if it’s natural
Something glowing from inside
Shining all around you
It’s potential has arrived

The Observer – An instrumental mood piece. Features an incessant drum beat with melodic guitar flourishes over top. Subtle synthesized orchestration enhances the atmosphere.

Waitin’ for a Superman – I consider this a cousin to the album’s opening track. Heavy, heavy drums throughout with muted vocals. I believe that Wayne Coyne sang this entire song in concert as mimed by a sock puppet (you have to see it to believe it). Noodling guitar throughout, it is amazing how many things are happening / mixed into this track – and yet it works. Strong melody, lyrics that resonate. With a minute and half left, Wayne’s vocals really take on an emotional hue that befits the subject. Key lyrics:

Tell everybody
Waitin’ for Superman
That they should try to hold on
Best they can
He hasn’t dropped them
Forgot them
Or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift

Suddenly Everything Has Changed – A song that is simply devastating in its message with a delivery that matches. Bass carries the tune as Wayne sings about mundane details of life. Once he reaches the chorus, his voice is isolated with an eerie Wizard of Oz background coming into focus. A few strums of the guitar brings the song back to the next verse. Not quite the same as the 1st, as the next verse features a galloping bass and an almost western movie piano. Same stunning chorus though – really driving the point home to the listener – things can change in an instant. Key lyrics:

Putting all the vegetables away
That you bought at the grocery store today
And it goes fast
You think of the past
Suddenly everything has changed

The Gash – A very theatrical opener to the song – gong, screaming, and noises before everything settles into a call and response groove based jam. A deeper album cut. Wayne’s vocals reach an emotional climax during the chorus that is simply breathtaking. Key lyrics:

Will the fight for our sanity
Be the fight of our lives?
Now that we’ve lost all the reasons
That we thought that we had

Feeling Yourself Disintegrate – What I’d imagine it would actually feels like to disintegrate. An ache in Wayne’s vocals that betrays the honesty of the lyrics. Low key, orchestrated song until it moves into the chorus – where the song becomes mantra-like in its repetitive use of the title. Swells of orchestra, guitar, and electronic sounds flesh out the sound. Perfect. Lyrics:

Love in our life is just too valuable
Oh, to feel for even a second without it
But life without death is just impossible
Oh, to realize something is ending within us
Feeling yourself disintegrate

Sleeping on the Roof – Mournful instrumental, evoking all of life’s greatest questions. No percussion, which is quite a change. The song retains its beauty throughout but becomes noisier as it progresses.

The Spiderbite Song – A song that got its inspiration from a spiderbite that a member of the band had (that actually was a drug related health issues). Warm piano, heavy drums, and Wayne singing his heart out about various things that had affected his friends. As the song progresses, more and more embellishments are added to mix, giving it an epic feeling. One of the greatest songs I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing performed live. Key lyrics:

When you fell in love it was so sweet
So devoted, completely swept off your feet
Love is the greatest thing our heart can know
But the hole that it leaves in its absence can make you feel so low

I was glad that it didn’t destroy you
How sad that would be
Cos if it destroyed you
It would destroy me

Buggin’ – The sound encapsulates everything that has been great about this record. Electronic experiments (a bug buzzing in the mix), heavy bass, heavy drums, and Wayne singing his heart out. Lyrically, it takes the heavier topics of the earlier songs and looks to the smallest creatures to make sense out of life. A great closer. Key lyrics:

Does love buzz because that’s what it does?
Well, they fly in the air as you comb your hair
And the summertime will make you itch the mosquito bites

This was the album that turned me into a Flaming Lips fan. I honestly feel that this is a band that always has something interesting to say with each release – starting with their first EP in 1985 and carrying all the way up to the 2012 release The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.The uncertainty of life can be overwhelming. One minute the future is ahead of you, and the next it could be taken away. The Flaming Lips explored these topics on The Soft Bulletin and I find it to be their most emotionally resonant record. Hug your friends, be kind to others – life is a fragile beast. Join me next week as I discuss the self titled record by The Modern Lovers.

3 thoughts on “The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

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