Wednesday, October 24, 2007

[044] The Soft Bulletin

Album: The Soft Bulletin
Artist: The Flaming Lips
Release Date: May 1999
Label: Warner Bros.
Producer: The Flaming Lips & Dave Fridmann, with Scott Booker and Peter Mokran

"Will the fight for out sanity be the fight of our lives now that we've lost all the reasons that we thought we had?"
- from "The Gash"

When The Flaming Lips started recording The Soft Bulletin, they were, to most of America, a forgettable one hit wonder, another in a very long line of underground bands snatched up major labels in the Alternative boom, and done a disservice by having their most novel of novelty songs pushed to MTV as Buzz Bin fodder. No one would have ever predicted that The Lips would go from being a band that seemed like barely-there acid casualties fascinated by all the buttons, knobs, and pretty lights in the studio to being one of America's best bands, sonic visionaries capable of overwhelming joy and intense beauty. To me, it all starts with singer Wayne Coyne's transformation into a salt-&-peppered monarch butterfly of psychedelic Rock. Coyne's stage presence is so engaging, charming, and heartwarming, you want him to win; his infectious joy wills you into liking his band's music. It's no matter that his voice is thin and strained. His lack of training is endearing, like he walked in off the street and right up to the mic. He makes up for his shortcomings with fake theater blood, confetti, hand puppets, and light shows, fist in the air as if to say 'Power to the people, love to everyone, everywhere'. He's the aging Rock never-was that might just find success by the time his hair makes it all the way to gray. His songs are childlike in their innocence and curiosity, universal and exploratory. He renders everyday experiences in bright colors, big shapes, and basic emotions. The Soft Bulletin is painted in big, thick strokes, but every stroke was carefully considered; it sounds like a widescreen Disney production of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, like if The Band had made The Dark Side Of The Moon, if The Flaming Lips made their best album. It is both an artistic breakthrough and masterpiece.

Coyne writes lyrics like a children's book, full of zoo animals and talking insects; on Bulletin, he maps out human nature and adult responsibility in ways a child could learn from. Despite purposefully working in simple states, this is an adult writing about adult things. "Race For The Prize" opens with a story of two scientists by positioning their goal, "The cure that is the prize", against the consequences; "Theirs is to win if it kills them. They're just humans with wives and children." The scientists sacrifice their families for the greater good, and in "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton", they selfishly regret the sacrifice, having given
"more than they had". It wasn't enough that they stunned their doubters and won the love of millions, "lifted up the Sun", and had shown the possibilities of their success to be infinite. I know you've forgotten that I'm talking about two Pop songs. Steve Drozd's drums echo the infinity, crashing down to Earth with the force of the heavens; the pianos and harps and flutes twinkle like the stars, while strings, real and canned, are conducted with sweeping elegance. When Michael Ivins' bass and Drozd's beat land on "Spoonful" at 1:23, you'd think that aliens are attacking. "Buggin'" is a cyclical treat; apparently when Coyne's not spinning some Shel Silverstein, he's flipping some Dr. Suess nursery rhymes. The fragile ballad "The Spiderbite Song", inexplicably left off the UK version of the album, is a confessional that aims to be the emotional core of Bulletin; Coyne lays out examples of devoted friendship in touching odes to his band members, addressing personal ordeals like Drozd's near-amputation of his arm due to heroin abuse and Ivins' miraculous survival of a horrifying car accident.

Revisiting the scientific motif in regards to life issues, the cosmic "What Is The Light?" strives to explain love from a chemical standpoint, and the worried
"Waitin' For A Superman" wonders aloud about the weight of the world's problems as a whole. The epic "The Spark That Bled" conceals its true message of defiance and confidence behind a chugging pastiche of classic Rock, while on the episodic "Suddenly Everything Has Changed", Coyne tackles the inevitability of aging vs. the triviality of everyday tasks. One of the album's grandest statements, "The Gash" is a meditation on the will to continue in the face of adversity. The music that accompanies it is bombast at its best; a battery of horns muscle their way in, making room for operatic flourishes reminiscent of early Queen to fight for attention with a booming beat that would sound at home on a KRS-One album. The album's climactic message of love comes as the acoustic lullaby "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate", tucked into a bed of human beatboxing, dreamy guitars & choirs, and organ hanging like a glow-in-the-dark mobile. The Flaming Lips packed The Soft Bulletin with songs fat with gorgeous orchestrations, lush and pristine production, and a wealth of positivity for their fellow man, all delivered with such verve and strength of spirit that you can't help but love it. It's an irresistible gift from the least likely band. And it's as much a joy to receive as I'm sure it was to give.

01. "Race For The Prize [remix]"
02. "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton"
03. "The Spark That Bled"
04. "The Spiderbite Song"
05. "Buggin' [remix]"
06. "What Is The Light?"
07. "The Observer"
08. "Waitin' For A Superman"
09. "Suddenly Everything Has Changed"
10. "The Gash"
11. "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate"
12. "Sleeping On The Roof"
13. "Race For The Prize"
14. "Waitin' For A Superman [remix]"
* This is the US version of the album; the UK version contains the original "Buggin'" instead of the remix, and omits "The Spiderbite Song" in favor of a track called "Slow Motion".

"Race For The Prize" [live at the Oklahoma City Zoo]
from the DVD UFO's At The Zoo

"A Spoonful Weighs A Ton" [live in St. Louis, 08.06]

"The Spark That Bled" [live on HBO's Reverb, 1999]

"Waitin' For A Superman" [video]

- BONUS: "Race For The Prize" [video]
- BONUS: "Buggin'" [live & acoustic in Toronto, 09.06]
- BONUS: "The Gash" [live in NYC, 04.06]
- BONUS: "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" [live in London, 10.99]

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