Classic Albums: The Flaming Lips – “The Soft Bulletin”: 15 Years Later

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by Ryan Meehan

This summer brings us the fifteenth anniversary of one of the most influential records over the past twenty-five years. The ninth album by The Flaming Lips was given the title “The Soft Bulletin”, and would be released on June 22nd, 1999 here in the United States. I heard an awful lot of it that summer, and it elicited emotions that at the time I did not think I was capable of understanding. I wasn’t really sure what to think of it at first, as Wayne’s voice is definitely an acquired taste.

The word “psychedelic” is very strange because it can be quite misleading. In 1999 I was first heading off to a major university, so my idea of psychedelic was a bit distorted when you consider all of the college kids I came across that were into Phish and Widespread Panic. I never thought that is could be possible for indie rock that was considered experimental to be dubbed “psychedelic”.

But this record changed all of that for me. From the second I heard this album, I realized that psychedelia wasn’t about tie-dye and road trips. It was about really expanding one’s mind, but doing so in a way that extremes and discomfort were still present. Whereas in the sixties and seventies the motto was “If it feels good, do it”, this disc sent me an internal message that said: “Look, some of this is not going to make you feel pleasant. But trust us, when it’s over you’ll understand”.

So to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of “The Soft Bulletin”, I’m going to go through this track-by-track as I would have done if I had been a writer when it came out.  Only in this version, you’ll get what the 34-year old me thinks about it…which I can assure you is much more coherent to say the very least.  And you’ll have to trust me that when it’s over, you’ll understand.

1.  “Race for the Prize” – 4:09

As the story goes, “Two scientists were racing for the good of all mankind. Both of them side by side, so determined”…This track serves a dual purpose to the listener: While establishing an upbeat tone that is alerting there’s also that nauseating keyboard hook that lets you know there are going to be a lot of ups and downs on this record. Coyne uses the chorus (or prechorus, it’s difficult to tell) to dramatize the competitive nature of the race by stating “Theirs is to win, if it kills them”; and then in the next breath to sort of humanize the scientists by stating “They’re just humans, with wives and children”. “Prize” also lets us know that for a majority of the record the drums are going to be very loud in the mix and bombastic in nature, with a very “dance hall” reverb to enhance the listening experience.

Little known fact: In 2012, TFL rewrote some of the lyrics to the song to make a fight song for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” – 3:32

This was the first track I heard off of the record, because a friend of mine had wanted me to hear the sonic boom that occurs about 1:09 in. At the time, it was one of the deepest tones that I had ever heard, and in a very unusual place. Imagine someone dropping a 2 Live Crew-like Miami Bass synth sound right in the middle of Mercury Rev’s “Holes”, and that pretty much describes what that moment sounded like sonically.

This change in intensity is really the first example that the album produces where you can see just how flawlessly the Lips can transition from one extreme to another. But the next track would prove to be the biggest change in direction of all, at least so far…

3. “The Spark That Bled” (The Softest Bullet Ever Shot) – 5:55

In my own personal opinion, I consider this track to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s so calming, beginning with this very simple guitar riff that moves slowly over a hi-hat glide that is unapologetically computer generated. What moved me so much about this song was the use of a Post-Chorus to effectively create a statement that is so moving and exists solely to make you stick your fist in the air during a very slow-paced song. But it’s hard to tell if it is actually a Post-Chorus, because the argument could be made that this song in fact contains no chorus at all. Nevertheless when Wayne says “I stood up and I said, yeah!” for three bars and the beat drops out, it gives everybody in the room such a great feeling that when the second time it happens in the song it is almost a battle cry of sorts. Perhaps the most mystifying aspect of this track is that after three and a half minutes of the most melancholy song you could possibly dream up, the track breaks into something that is a one hundred and eighty degree turn from the rest of the cut – and undeniably upbeat. It bounces along as the following lyrics fill it out…

“And it seemed to cause a chain reaction

It had momentum, it was gaining traction

It was all the rage, it was all the fashion

The outreached hands had resigned themselves

To holding onto something that they never had

And that’s too bad…”

And then it slowly drifts back to the original tempo as Coyne belts out “‘Cause in reality there was no reaction” while the song seamlessly transitions into the original riff. This is an extremely important moment in the Lips’ career, because two things are fighting for attention here: There are the lyrics that basically suggest the entire posi-indie part which came before it was nothing but a dream sequence trying to compete with the unbelievable manner in which the group was able to flawlessly return the track to its original birthplace. It seems to peacefully attempt to blow your mind, all the while wrapping up a classic song. It’s eerily similar to the battle between the two scientists in the first song.

4. “The Spiderbite Song” – 4:02

This title of this song came from a tale about how Steven was supposedly facing amputation of one of his arms due to an infection as a result of a spiderbite. Of course, we would later learn that this was due to an abscess caused by repeated opiate injection. The first verse tells the story innocently enough, but as much as I’d hate to believe it one would have to think that by this point in the group’s journeys Wayne and the rest of the group were all well aware of Steven’s heroin problem. That’s why when you hear him sing “‘I’m glad that it didn’t destroy you, how sad that would be…” you can almost imagine him saying “I’m glad that you didn’t go down like that, because it would be a really sad ending to what was becoming a great story”. If you’ve ever seen the documentary, you’re very familiar with the scene where Steven shoots up and you know that it’s pretty disturbing.  The juxtaposition of his addiction put into words next to the light-hearted musical feel of this track speaks volumes about the range of this band.

The drums on this song continue on bombastically while a piano tinkers over the landscape that the Lips have created with this song. In the second verse, we learn about an incidence that occurred around the same point in time where Ivins was trapped in his car after a wheel from another vehicle became a dangerous projectile and went through his front window. Coyne reminds him how lucky he was by saying “Dodging holes and telephone poles through the dash…A million to one that you could survive such a crash”.

But the third verse was probably the thing that hits most men my age the hardest: Shortly after Zaireeka was released, Coyne’s father passed away after battling cancer for many years. Any male in his thirties knows the importance of having a great relationship with their father, and at this age the mortality of their parents is something that crosses the mind quite a bit.  Coyne wraps up the track by advising “Love is the greatest thing our heart can know…The hole that it leaves in its abscence can make you feel so low”.  That pretty much covers it.

5. “Buggin” – 3:16

Some songs from a record convey a certain image that accurately represent the title of the cut.  This is a perfect example of such a mental picture, as the vocals at the outset of the track seem to resemble that of a porch light with many mosquitos and moths flocking towards it.  The many harmonies seem to flutter around this gorgeous melody that attracts everything in the studio to its presence.  But when the drums kick in for the verse, it’s almost as if the porch light becomes a bug zapper, with the once again loud snapping of the kick and the snare audibly electrocuting its victims until the next break.  And when that break comes, the air is clear once again for a new group of bugs to fall victim to the same trap.  According to the song, the trap is love – and the feeling you get from love is the buzz.  I also like to think that using the theme of bugs is in a way a callback to the song “Put the Waterbug in the Policeman’s Ear” from the album “Due To High Expectations…The Flaming Lips Are Providing Needles For Your Balloons”.  During the parts where all of the chaos is ensuing, it’s easy to see why this could have come from the same pool of thoughts that spawned the music featured on “Zaireeka”.  It would have been very interesting to see how this would have sounded on four separate systems in true quadrophonic sound.  I like to think this song reminds me of something that we are all drawn to, whether it be love, or something else that we are looking to fly towards short of Icarus’ fate.  Some sort of light that can only be defined by asking…

6. “What is the Light?” (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 cause of the Accelerating Universe) – 4:05

Despite having one of the longest subtitles for a four minute song in the history of mankind, this track serves as a progressively stable bridge that connects both ends of the record.  This song is centered around a piano hook that utilizes an echo/delay filter over a simple quarter note kick drum until the full kit kicks in.  Once again the theme of love is present, and describes it as “the face and the place that you’re drawn to”.

It’s important to note that at this point in the album, it’s my belief that the approach to the snare sound has changed.  While it was previously part of the earth shattering big hall drum sound, by this now the focus is on more of a snappy and poppy almost triggered snare.  Both the changing sound of the snare drum and the rhythm of the beat are a precursor to “Suddenly Everything has Changed” which shows up just about nine minutes after the conclusion of this song.

7. “The Observer” – 4:11

In a similar fashion to “What is the Light”, this one begins with just a simple tapping of a block.  But unlike the confidence that “Light” emits, “The Observer” starts in with a distorted (or slightly overdriven, take your pick) piano whose chord progression seems a little bit more suspect and concerned.  This is a glaring example of how uneasy the music of The Flaming Lips can be at times.  Although the middle of the song becomes more orchestral and intense, you just know that things are never going to end happily.  And in the end they don’t, or I would at least assume that they don’t because it never really leaves a minor scale.

Since this song is an instrumental, obviously the title leaves some open space for interpretation.  I like to think of it as the observer himself watching over something with an almost unhealthy amount of obsessive skepticism.  Perhaps it’s the positivity of “The Light”, perhaps it’s the whole album or project as a collective piece of art.  Or perhaps it doesn’t fucking have anything to do with the record at all, and maybe “The Observer” himself is for the most part simply becoming “The Observed” himself.  He’d like to think that he’s the one on top of the hill, looking down at that which he is unsure of, all the while not knowing that it is Wayne observing the big picture itself.  Or maybe the conspiracy theorist inside of him that has driven him to do all of the work to become the man atop the observatory has a sneaking suspicion that someone IS indeed observing him, and it’s HIS song instead of Wayne’s and that’s why the music is so suspect in tone and key.

Holy shit, maybe I am thinking about it too hard.  I almost feel like Atlas with all of these thoughts weighing so heavily on my mind.  Thankfully, I am about to be relieved.

8. “Waitin’ For Superman” (Is It Gettin’ Heavy?) – 4:17

From time to time, I find myself using the subtitle of this song to almost mock my own pride and knock myself back down to earth when things are getting too hard for me to handle.  As the song suggests – sometimes in life, “It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift”.  As a mortal with no super powers and/or susceptibility to kryptonite, I find myself in this predicament quite often.  But it’s all a matter of perspective…”Is it overwhelming…to use a crane to crush a fly?”.  I suppose it depends – am I the construction equipment or the miniscule insect in this situation?  Of course, that’s a stupid question and I’m completely missing the point.

This is a perfect place on the record for this track because after such a dark experience with “The Observer”, you almost had to have something lighter.  Although some of the power of the original drum sound has returned, the echo has softened the kit substantially.  But by this point the construction of the songs themselves has taken a back seat to the lyrics, but it won’t last long…

9. “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” (Death Anxiety Caused by Moments of Boredom) – 3:54

While “The Spark That Bled” changed from something that was majestically dreary to something that jumped out of the speakers with positive excitement, “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” emits the same feeling, only in reverse. While following a much more normal structure than expected upon first listen, the song is actually pretty typical in nature.  What’s amazing here is that there are key changes with every “verse”, but not the kind that cock-rockers such as Bon Jovi employed in the eighties to alert everybody that the adrenaline injections were working overtime.

While the beginning starts at a respectably average key, the listener isn’t yet aware of how accurate the song title is about to be.  When the drums drop out, Coyne belts out “Suddenly Everything has Changed…” and instead of the rhythm returning to get the song back on its original path it takes a completely different direction by floating into this intricate orchestral subset blanketed in a reverb soaked guitar.  When that break is finished, the Lips switch to a higher key for the second verse and it gives the song a much more positive light.  The root of the pattern is still based around a minor key, but it sounds more hopeful here at a higher register.  But just on cue, suddenly everything changes and we’re right back to the sorrowful sounds of Coyne’s ninth Symphony of his ninth Opus.  This time although the emotion is still there, you get the hunch that the third verse is not going to be a happy one to say the least.  And when we get there we realize that verse is the most telling – It’s in a much lower key, a few steps down from the second verse.  By this time, the hope is gone and Wayne ends the phrase with an extremely uneasy reminder that “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”.

10. “The Gash” (Battle Hymn for the Wounded Mathematician) – 4:02

For reasons that I’d rather not discuss while sharing memories of such an unforgettable record, I’ve always been a fan of the word “gash”.  (Who wouldn’t be?)  The track starts off with a cathedral style set of vocals and assorted noises, before slowly fading off into this shuffle of a beat backed by a very determined piano sound.  I would assume indirectly this one is the sudden impending change Coyne was speaking about in the last song, as it seems to be the most stable track on the record.  It’s at least the most noticeably stable, even if it is just the juxtaposition created from following the previous cut.

Waiting almost a minute and a half for the vocals to finally come in, “The Gash” provides a killer build up until the meat of the song begins to sizzle and drip blood.  While “Will the Fight for humanity…be the fight of our lives?” is a question that sort of answers itself, the rest of the track provides lyrics that are very open to interpretation.  “But the thought that went unspoken…Was understanding that you’re broken” suggests that the biggest miscalculation of the whole experiment (whatever that may be) may have been the fact that said mathematician was currently suffering a disfigurement either distracting him from his work, or was rendered physically incapable of completing the project.

11. “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” – 5:17

Beginning with percussive stereo vocal metronoming, “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” gives the signal that the end of the record is near. This song could very easily be the last one on the disc, had there not been remixes and reprises of “Prize” and “Superman”.  It has a surprisingly uplifting amount of stamina to it, and although a very sad song indeed it projects a very positive chord progression.  My favorite line from this cut has to be “But life without death is just impossible” because it brings one’s mortality into the limelight.  So what that lyric means to me (when combined with my previous statement) is that in most cases for every major chord, in most cases there is an equal and opposite minor chord.  So I guess I am able to see the positive in this situation, because when it comes down to it the song does pretty much end on the Fmajor even though the Dminor is what elicits the emotion of the listener.

I also would like to mention here that if this is indeed a song about the realization of one’s own fate and the feelings that coincide with the physical and emotional decomposition of the self, there is something to be said about the fact that this track is over five minutes long and the lyrics are only five lines in length.  I see this as sort of a “If you know you’re going to go, make that shit count” sort of pep talk.

I love how although the art of fade outs has since seen its glory days pass, the drums are faded out slowly at the end of the cut leaving the guitars to sort of float over their remains as the song ends.  The fade is disappearing fast in the iTunes/mp3 universe, but for concept records such as this one it still serves a very important sonic purpose.

12. “Sleeping on the Roof” (Excerpt from ‘Should we keep the Severed Head Awake?’) – 3:09

By this point the combination of the movie poster album cover and the bizarre subtitles have the listener desperately wanting to see this film.  With the same suspect and contentious approach projected in “The Observer”, you can almost hear the scientist “Sleeping on the Roof” while deciding on the fate of the subject matter contained in the subtitle.  While a relatively short song to end the album on, the Lips tend to play this song live as an intro to “Race” as most versions of the record transition into that song next.  And even if you’ve edited your own copy down to just the standard twelve song program, it goes right back to the beginning anyway.

An instrumental track to me is exactly that – a combination of those two words.  It’s a mental instrument that allows you to more closely examine either what you’re currently hearing, or what you’ve just heard.  In the case of the final song on this record, my guess would be that it’s the latter.  It gives you a beautiful musical backdrop that gives you space to think about the previous eleven cuts, while wrapping up what’s happened on the record in your own mind.

Summary

As previously stated the record then ends with variations on “Race for the Prize”, followed by “Waiting For Superman”, depending on which release of the album you purchased.  There have been countless remixes done of several of the songs on this album, and if I were to list all of them this would be twice as long as it already is.

Although I realize that this piece is not about me and instead regarding the legendary album we are so lucky to have been blessed with, I still have to give myself a bit of a round of applause for the fact that I was able to mention Phish, 2 Live Crew, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Bon Jovi all in a piece about what is undoubtably one of the most emotion-inducing alternative rock albums of all time.  And I think that says something about the way we’re supposed to feel about sharing our own creative abilities.  Shouldn’t everybody be walking around onstage with a megaphone; or swinging a gigantic light bulb over the head of the first row of the audience?  Maybe, just so long as they understand they aren’t going to be as effective as The Flaming Lips.  But nonetheless, the true spark that bleeds in all of us is the need to express ourselves creatively whilst not getting experimental to the point where a sense of purpose cannot be deciphered.  To have the structure in place so that enough people can relate to what we are doing individually is one of the most important things about making your vision become universally recognized.

As for comparisons, I’m hesitant to tread on that ground but if I had to this is what the dirt would look like:  When it comes to really expansive concept albums that have defined a certain place in musical history, “The Soft Bulletin” and “OK Computer” were about as close to “Dark Side of The Moon” as you were going to get in the late 1990s.  For a while there up until the Radiohead record came out in early 1997, I thought I was going to either need to exhume Cobain’s corpse or just sell all of my instruments and take up sleight of hand tricks.  Things were bad all throughout the industry, but that’s not to say that it’s the only reason a record like this one was so good.

There are so many perfect imperfections within The Soft Bulletin that make it so memorable. I remember the first couple times I heard “The Spark that Bled”, I would think from time to time – “Why didn’t they do the guitar part over here?” without realizing that when it comes to creating great music sometimes the little quirks are what gives it timeless individuality.

And I guess that phrase is where this record leaves me…with a sense of timeless individuality. With The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips created something that left my friends and I many fond memories while preparing all of us for the many ups and downs that life was to toss us in the coming years.  However I don’t think this is a case of “right place, right time” and to suggest that would be doing the band and everyone that participated in the making of this album a tremendous disservice.  I do believe that certain albums can really have an effect on your life after you have experienced them in so many different settings, and the older I get the more I’m sure I will learn to appreciate this disc.

And that’s sort of the glory of having a universal appeal through structure in the midst of healthy experimentation.  While I probably won’t listen to Cradle of Filth when I’m fifty-five, I know that if I’m lucky enough to still be breathing ten years after that I’ll still be listening to this CD.

But if I’m not, please do keep the severed head alive so that I can listen to it anyway.

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

 

 

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