Album Review: The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin

The wonderful thing about The Flaming Lips is their ability to be profound without sounding pretentious. Unlike, for example, some of the prog-rock bands of the ‘70s, whose big themes often got lost in dense mysticism, The Flaming Lips remain down-to-earth. In recent years their personality has arguably become a little tacky and directionless, sounding more like a random quirky word generator than a band. However, at their peak, The Flaming Lips were able to ground their existentialism in accessible idiosyncrasies. Twenty years ago, they achieved this balance to perfection. Presenting life in all its beauty and heartbreak, with gorgeous melodies and lush instrumentation to match the richness of its themes, The Soft Bulletin remains the band’s crowning achievement.

The Soft Bulletin occupies an interesting place in the Lips’ history. After seven albums of noise rock oddities, the band found themselves without a guitarist. Ronald Jones left the band after 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic and instead of looking for another one, the Lips took the opportunity to expand their sound beyond the conventions of rock music. Inspired by a series of ‘Parking Lot Experiments’, The Flaming Lips’ released their eighth studio album Zaireeka in 1997. Divided up into four discs, the listener had to synchronise all of them to experience the album in full. Beyond that gimmick, however, there isn’t much else to write home about. Whilst certainly more experimental than their previous records, Zaireeka didn’t transform the Lips’ sound with any lasting impact. For that, we had to wait for album number nine.

The Soft Bulletin was preceded by the release of Deserter’s Songs, the fourth studio album by Mercury Rev, in 1998. Having gone through a similar journey to the Lips, Deserter’s Songs was a notable departure from Mercury Rev’s noisier past. Expanding into more melodic and baroque pop territory, this album propelled the previously obscure indie rockers to surprising success. The similarities with The Flaming Lips don’t stop there, however. Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue was a member of the Lips for a couple of albums and, more importantly, Deserter’s Songs was recorded in the same studio as The Soft Bulletin. Lips frontman Wayne Coyne describes a symbiotic relationship between the two bands during the recording process, “whatever instruments, whatever new gadgets… whichever band would get them, the next group into the studio would use them too”. In fact, Coyne goes so far as to claim that “without Deserter’s Songs being so significant, The Soft Bulletin would probably have not been followed too much.

It’s unfair but inevitable that Deserter’s Songs will spend the rest of its existence being undermined by a stronger album that came out eight months later.

– Nathan Brooks

Coyne may well be right. Certainly, the studio collaboration plays a vital role in The Soft Bulletin’s sound and without the success of Deserter’s Songs perhaps there would’ve been less momentum for the Lips to ride on. That said, The Soft Bulletin is also the better album. Deserter’s Songs, whilst great, isn’t able to reach the transcendent heights of its peaks as consistently as the Lips’ album and the tendency for the instrumentals to slip into Disney-esque cheese is more prevalent on the Mercury Rev record. It’s unfair but inevitable that Deserter’s Songs will spend the rest of its existence being undermined by a stronger album that came out eight months later. Which isn’t a reflection on Mercury Rev’s faults so much as it’s a testament to how incredible The Soft Bulletin is. 

Occasionally hailed as the ‘Pet Sounds of the 90s’, the most immediate aspect of The Soft Bulletin is how much more intricate it is in comparison to the band’s previous work. Rather than restricting the Lips, the lack of a guitarist has liberated them to explore new songwriting territory. The band refused to start writing songs on an acoustic guitar to avoid alt-rock convention and the result is an album so diverse and expansive it’s almost impossible to label. Whilst Race for the Prize opens the record with thundering drums suitable for any rocker, it’s the bizarre, warped synthesisers – which the band haven’t been able to replicate since – that define the track. The twinkling piano and synthesised strings that open A Spoonful Weighs a Ton further confirm that this is a more sophisticated sound. One that moves with effortless grace from aching melancholy to whimsical hope, from swooning baroque pop to groovy electronica. The manifold tones and sounds of The Soft Bulletin are brought together with imperceptible elegance, as if it’s all preordained by a divine being. 

Every song on The Soft Bulletin feels like a journey, both sonically and emotionally and it would take far too long describing why each and every one of them is so great.

– Nathan Brooks

The Spark That Bled, the album’s third track, is emblematic of what makes The Soft Bulletin so remarkable. Elegiac guitar jangles and sinister synthesised cellos carry the verses through to the exotic concoction of synths and percussion that makes up the chorus, before the energetic bridge, driven by Steven Drozd’s restless drumming, takes the song to territory unrecognisable from where it started. A return to the mournful tone of the beginning bookends the song perfectly, encapsulating a cosmic wealth of emotions in under 6 minutes. Every song on The Soft Bulletin feels like a journey, both sonically and emotionally and it would take far too long describing why each and every one of them is so great. From the life-affirming crescendo of What is the Light? to the melodic delicacy of Suddenly Everything Has Changed; from the unrelenting march of The Gash to the sublime sorrow of Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, the only way to truly experience the depth and breadth and beauty these songs have to offer is to take my word for it and listen to them.

Amidst all this music, of course, is the voice of Wayne Coyne. Coyne’s quality as a singer is a source of much debate and I don’t think there’s anyone that would argue he’d have much of a chance on The X-Factor. However, I wouldn’t want anybody else singing these songs. Whilst it certainly suited the band’s coarser noise rock days, the contrast between Coyne’s rough voice and The Soft Bulletin’s immaculate arrangements works even better. There’s something quietly profound about Coyne’s presence, how small and imperfect he seems against the wall of sound that envelops him. Lyrically, Coyne’s existential musings provide the perfect compliment. They can occasionally get a tad out there (such as What is the Light?’s lengthy subtitle ‘An Untested Hypothesis Suggesting That the Chemical [In Our Brains] by Which We Are Able to Experience the Sensation of Being in Love Is the Same Chemical That Caused the “Big Bang” That Was the Birth of the Accelerating Universe’) but something always brings it back down to earth. Whether it’s Suddenly Everything Has Changed’s opening reference to grocery shopping or Race for the Prize’s “they’re just humans with wives and children” line, The Soft Bulletin’s quirks are devastatingly human. 

“Still the battle that we’re in rages on till the end” Coyne sings on The Gash, “but the thought that went unspoken was understanding that you’re broken.” This is what underpins the whole of The Soft Bulletin; life is going to be hard and the only way to get through is to recognise the vulnerabilities in all of us. Or as Waitin’ for a Superman puts it, sometimes “it’s just too heavy for Superman to lift”. In every respect, The Soft Bulletin captures this theme beautifully. Weaving their unique humanity into sweeping compositions and blissful melodies, this is The Flaming Lips at the top of their game, creating the perfect soundtrack for an existential crisis like only they can.