Albums You Must Own Number 11 – The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips
August 25th 1999. My birthday. I had been a caffeine addict all of my life, drinking 6-10 cups of coffee a day since I went to school, and I was in my 8th month of a new year induced cold turkey. I was the most pleasant, laid back man on the planet. Couldn’t make a decision to save my life.
Cribbs Causeway had just opened near Bristol, a new, sprawling mall. They had a US-style coffee shop, and I treated myself to my first espresso in 8 months. And this happened:
It was also the day I first heard ‘The Soft Bulletin’ by The Flaming Lips. Frankly, if the coffee hadn’t given me the synapse boost, this album would. To this day it’s the most complex, euphoric, uplifting record that I have.
Most bands peak with their first or second album. This was the Lips 9th. They’d been making psychedelic grunge for 16 years at this point, scoring an early US hit with ‘She Don’t Like Jelly’, which was the payback for a lengthy contract to Warner Bros. Then ‘The Soft Bulletin’ – beautifully summed up in the UNCUT review of the time: “Unlike anything, ever.”
Wayne Coyne has an extraordinary, plaintive voice. Live, he sometimes struggles – there’s a wonderful DVD of them at Oklahoma City on the last night of a tour and he sounds throaty, raw. But that emotional quality wrings out the raw depths of humanity in his lyrics. Everything is about striving, love, doing the best for people, conveyed with unique sensitivity. Take the lyrics of Race for the Prize, imho the best album opening track of all time:
Two scientists were racing
For the good of all mankind
Both of them side by side
Locked in heated battle
For the cure that is their prize
But it’s so dangerous
But they’re determined
Theirs is to win
If it kills them
They’re just humans
With wives and children
Is it about a cure for polio? Malaria? Or just doing the very best for everyone at the cost of their own humanity? I don’t know, but the way that Coyne sings it makes it heartbreaking. And that’s in front of the most thunderous drums and an amazing keyboard / guitar line which slides all around the beat.
‘Race for the Prize’ was the first song that they would perform on tour. The Lips live put every other band in the shade. Watch here to get the measure and then wonder why every band doesn’t work this hard:
Dancing Animals! Glitter! Confetti cannons! Balloons!
So that’s track 1. What about the rest of this psychedelic masterpiece, Steve? Track 2, ‘A Spoonful Weighs a Ton’, is the exact flipside of ‘Race…’ –this is a song about the dangers of overachievement, about hubris in science. It’s slow, thoughtful, melodic, and sad.
Performing ‘The Spark that Bled’, Wayne presses a blood capsule to his forehead. A trickle of gore runs down his face as he expresses that love is like a bullet wound to the head, ‘the softest bullet’. There’s an orchestra in the background, running throughout much of the album – tracks will go from single voice to full choir, from loping 4/4 to rocking out in the space of 5 seconds.
There are many marvels to recommend on this beautiful record. (There are also a number of versions of it – it’s worth digging out the 5.1 remix if you can find it on ebay.) There’s off-kilter, tiny glitches throughout (check out the digital watch bleep at 0:57 on ‘What is the Light’.) The other ‘tentpole’ track is ‘Waiting For Superman’, more of that patented sad / uplifting mix that the Lips do so well. The poignant video is here:
It’s a heartrending tale of a boy and his dad – you’ll be leaking saline by the end.
The Flaming Lips continue to be an astonishing live band and are about to release a new album, ‘The Terror’. But it’s an tremendous group (and kudos to Michael Ivins, Steven Drozd and Kliph Spurlock, the eternal core of the band, as well as longtime producer Dave Fridmann) who can last for 30 years(!) and still produce compelling music like this. If you like ‘The Soft Bulletin’ , take time to find the follow-up, ‘Yoshimi versus the Pink Robots’ the heartwarming tale of a girl struggling to eat correctly as she destroys invading robotic assassins with the martial arts.
Is it getting heavy?
Review by Steve Noble