The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CULT ’90s: The Flaming Lips – ‘The Soft Bulletin’

Much was made a couple of years ago when Radiohead’s OK Computer turned 20 years old, with dozens of think-pieces and commentators pointing out the feeling of dread, foreboding and pre-millennial tension had accurately presaged life as we’re experiencing it under late Western capitalism. That album was so influential that the archetype of the ‘dystopian masterpiece’ became one that countless artists have subsequently pursued. But there didn’t seem to be room, amid all that analysis and retrospective praise, for any discussion of the flipside of that well-worn concept – the ‘utopian masterpiece’, the anti-OK Computer to soundtrack positivity at the turn of the millennium. If there was, then The Soft Bulletin, the ­pièce-de-résistance from Oklahoman trio The Flaming Lips, would surely be the frontrunner.

Released in the early summer of 1999 to rave reviews, even compared to the great receptions that had increasingly been afforded to their Nineties output, the Lips’ ninth album truly defied even the most optimistic predictions that critics and fans had for it. The Soft Bulletin needs to be seen in the context of this career arc. In many ways, The Flaming Lips didn’t really have many options left in the experimental stakes following 1997’s plainly ludicrous Zaireeka, an album whose mixes were split over four discs and required the listener to play all of them simultaneously on different CD players. Their only previous minor ‘hit’, the Beavis & Butthead… soundtracking ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, was now half a decade behind them, and even their most devoted fans were wondering what it was going to take for the band to keep evolving. Mercurial guitarist Ronald Jones had quit due to his agoraphobia in 1996, and Warner Bros., who had signed the band way back in 1990, weren’t particularly keen on keeping them around for much longer either.

It didn’t add up to a highly promising future for a band that preferred dangerous indoor pyrotechnics and guerrilla gigs in car parks to the record-release-tour cycle of most major label acts. As Wayne Coyne put it in a recent interview with the NME: “We started to make The Soft Bulletin while being very realistic that it could be the last one we ever made. We weren’t even pretending to be aware of commercial viability. We thought that if nothing else, it would stand for us. Nobody can control the music industry, but we could control making the record we wanted to.”

The Soft Bulletin represented a break from their past, very distinct from their noisy psychedelic rock albums like Transmissions From The Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic over the previous 14 years that had won them critical acclaim but, at best, a cult following. But it was also of a piece with those albums, containing the same spirit of sonic experimentation, just more refined and focussed in different areas. There are innovations aplenty, many of which were down to Dave Fridmann’s magic behind the production desk in a manner similar to the stardust he had sprinkled on Mercury Rev’s beautiful Deserter’s Songs, an album he produced pretty much simultaneously with The Soft Bulletin, but this time around experimentation is always in service of songcraft, not the other way around.

READ MORE: Mercury Rev // ‘Deserter’s Songs’ at 20 years old

So commercial was the album that R&B producer Peter Mokran was allowed to tinker with its two singles – ‘Race For The Prize’ and ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’ – in the hope of breaking through to radio.Thus, The Flaming Lips accomplished the rare act of broadening their appeal and accessing a new audience while keeping their established fanbase happy, and The Soft Bulletin built the foundations of the band as most people came to know and love them in the 21st century. With its serious yet playful lyrics, Wayne Coyne’s generous and slightly cracked vocal delivery shot through with wide-eyed wanderlust, and the symphonic, euphoric production that wove the guitar psychedelia of the Lips’ past into a more layered, intricate sound, it’s hardly surprising that one publication described the album as the Pet Sounds of the Nineties.

Fridmann’s decision to record the album onto 35mm magnetic tape, an odd medium normally used in filmmaking rather than music-making, helped reinforce the fantastical, phantasmagorical aspects of the music. The strings, in particular, sound like they’ve been lifted straight from the soundtrack to some imaginary Disney film. As a consequence, it sounded like very little else at the end of Nineties, an era dominated by the twilight of the alternative rock revolution in the States, and in 2019 it still retains its timeless qualities.

Steven Drozd’s thunderous percussion, which with Fridmann’s production trickery also takes on a splashy, hazy yet completely cinematic quality, is just one of the sonic marvels on The Soft Bulletin, also undermining the rock myth that heroin necessarily destroys creativity. Drozd’s enthusiasm for the horse was legendary through most of the Nineties and right up until the end of recording of 2002’s similarly excellent masterpiece Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, so… go figure.

And then there’s the songs themselves. Not only do they perform the function of escapism – and boy, are these songs transportive – they also make the listener think differently about the world, in grander, more generous terms and with a restored faith in humanity. Many had been inspired by recent brushes with death or serious injury. Drozd had nearly lost his entire hand to a ‘fiddleback’ spider-bite (recalled in ‘The Spiderbite Song’); bassist Michael Ivins was nearly killed in a freak car accident in which a stray tyre struck his vehicle and forced him off the road; and Wayne Coyne lost his father to cancer. Where previously they disguised their songs in vignettes about space, zoos and Jesus, now they had a disarming directness.

Music video for ‘Race For The Prize’

Although these songs are about mortality, fate and struggle, it’s impossible to feel pessimistic when listening to The Soft Bulletin. Starting with the stunning ‘Race For The Prize’, which also acted as the album’s lead single, Coyne tells a sweet, proud story of two scientists competing to find “the cure that is their prize” for “the good of all mankind”, his voice quavering to emphasise the significance of the task. Starting with a cannonade of percussion and spiraling, heaven-bound synth line, ‘Race For The Prize’ was both the most accessible thing the Lips had ever made and also absolutely preposterous by the radio standards of the time. In virtually anybody else’s hands, it would be utterly ridiculous – images of Nobel Prizes and white lab coats don’t usually work in pop – but their absolute, borderline Messianic conviction carries the day.

These incredibly high standards are maintained flawlessly throughout The Soft Bulletin. The enjoyable messiness that characterised much of The Flaming Lips’ previous work is gone, tightened up and focussed into some of the most glorious yet avant-garde pop that’s ever been released. The noisy interruptions that overturn ‘A Spoonful Weighs A Ton’, for example, would previously have been used as a jump-off point for a lengthy prog-psych exploration. Here, it’s brought under control and used as a critical part of the song’s structure. Its themes are also important, continuing the trend of ‘is science being used in the service of mankind or vice versa?’ quandary of ‘Race For The Prize’, but on this track, the science is benevolent. The scientists here, “though they were sad”, gave it all they had and exceeded known limits (“they lifted up the sun”). Even though they were “drunk on their plan”, like the obsessives “forging for the future but to sacrifice their lives” of the opening track, it worked, and the world was saved.

A track like the multi-segmented ‘The Spark That Bled’, is a hell of a lot more sophisticated than anything they’d made before. Over a Fantasia-style orchestral openingCoyne’s opening lyric “I accidentally touched my head / and noticed that I had been bleeding / for how long I didn’t know” is a moment of innocuous observation turning into profound, existential clarity, and it’s upon these concepts that The Soft Bulletin is built. You get the same thing in ‘Suddenly Everything Has Changed’, where the protagonist is hanging up laundry when “the sky goes fast / you think of the past” and, instantaneously, a feeling of nostalgia overwhelms the subject, as signaled by the poignant sweeps of strings that interject the walking-pace drums.

Music video for ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’

The majestically poised ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’ explores the psychological weight of the post-modern condition, asking what it meant to be alive at the threshold of the 21st century, in a materialistic world increasingly bereft of old societal certainties. ‘The Gash’ reframes the same themes as a fight, its strident march reflecting a call-to-arms to maintain sanity in the face of so much confusion (“will the fight for our sanity be the fight for our lives?”). The way that each song is given a sub-title, either reinforcing or explaining the theme of the individual track or overall album (for instance, ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’ is given the sub-title ‘Is It Gettin’ Heavy?’), makes The Soft Bulletin a loosely conceptual record – but, crucially, not A Concept Album, with all the pretension and unnecessary weightiness that they often entail.

Even if you’re not into reading meaning into pop songs, The Soft Bulletin is amazing to simply listen to, an audio event happening around you. ‘Slow Motion’ (replacing ‘The Spiderbite Song’ in a re-ordered tracklist for the UK version) manages to be both relaxed and urgent, filled with the simple joy of just being alive. ‘What Is The Light?’ slows things down with a sparse arrangement before catapulting itself into the heavens, a moment which segues into the blissful instrumental ‘The Observer’. The key track ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ is built upon a rhythm made from the band basically beatboxing, and unfurls slowly into a moment in which the ego simply dissolves, as Coyne sings “love in our life is just too valuable to live even for a second without it” and “life without death is just impossible”. Closing track ‘Buggin’’ ends things on an almost childlike note of air-punching joy.

Live performance of ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’

Twenty years after its release, there’s been very little to match the way that The Flaming Lips balanced cutting-edge sonics and their appetite for experimentation with such pop nous. Given the context of their career, The Soft Bulletin was a moment of do-or-die for the group, and their careful recalibrations paid off handsomely. It caught the imaginations of a much larger audience, selling over a quarter of a million copies in the U.S. in around five years and hitting gold in Britain, a market that had never really been exposed to Coyne and co. before. The NME named it their Album of the Year for 1999, and it finished third in Pitchfork’s countdown of the best albums of the Nineties.

Since then, The Soft Bulletin and its immediate successors – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and 2006’s At War With The Mystics – have been a wellspring of inspiration for dozens of artists. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard’s Stu Mackenzie, for example, have followed its example of retro-fitting a timeless feel to their records using production wizardry, and Animal Collective took up the gauntlet of forging ground-breaking music straddling the great divide between avant-garde and pop the following decade, culminating in 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Noughties’ best equivalent to the Lips’ masterpiece. MGMT and Empire Of The Sun embraced The Soft Bulletin’s sense of kaleidoscopic, dressing-up-box wanderlust for their most popular works.

But aside from direct influences, The Flaming Lips set a benchmark for ambitious pop artists ever since with their ninth and finest album, one that constantly reminds you that sonic boundaries can always still be pushed back further.

Listen to The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

Influenced: Wilco, Super Furry Animals, Eels, The Shins, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene, of Montreal, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Animal Collective, My Morning Jacket, British Sea Power, The Fiery Furnaces, Secret Machines, Deerhunter, The Antlers, Bon Iver, MGMT, Empire Of The Sun, Ariel Pink, Tame Impala, Pond, Foxygen, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Influenced by: The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, Mercury Rev

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