I can imagine some frat boy walking through the aisles of his local record store, trying to decide if there’s anything to spend his student loans on before he wastes it all on beer this coming Friday. He comes to the “F” section and sees The Flaming Lips. A dim memory stirs of “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and he thinks to himself at how cool it was to like that song because it was so, well, alternative. He flips through it absentmindedly, and sees The Soft Bulletin. But instead of plunking down the $14, he decides to spend his money on beer, or worse yet, the new Blink 182 album.
Come to think of it, that was actually me in that record store…
This is really quite sad, because I could easily have passed up one of the most beautiful albums to come down the pipe in some time. I believe the Flaming Lips are a band that you either love through thick and thin (you probably gathered 3 of your friends so you could play all 4 discs of Zaireeka at some party — and you never saw your friends again) or you hate them with a righteous passion. And it’s easy to see why. I think most of it has to do with Wayne Coyne’s voice, which always sounds like it’s trying to reach for notes that are close, but just out of reach.
But I think this album is worth a second look for those who fall into the latter category. If you’re fans of all that’s beautiful and spacy about psychedelic rock, but can’t stand the 15 minute echo-drenched guitar solos or the drones that sound like someone fell asleep on the Moog, or if you’re fans of pop music, but just wish it seemed a little more grandiose, then you owe it to yourself to give The Soft Bulletin a spin.
Hearkening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boys’ arrangements, but also to works such as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and The Boo Radleys’ Everything’s Alright Forever, The Soft Bulletin exudes bright arrangements, soft keyboard flourishes that shine like rays of sunlight, the occasional choir, and pop hooks drenched in spaced-out effects and melancholy. And even Coyne’s voice sound gorgeous and well-tuned for the music. His warbling, high-pitched voice is less-than-perfect, which adds a touch of humanity to the music. There’s a sense that his voice could crack at anytime, which brings the orbiting ambient melodies and arrangements back to earth.
There’s the amazing bridge in “The Spark That Bled” where the Lips get their groove thing going on, or the gospel-ish “Gash.” Or the aptly-named “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” where the whole golden mess slowly beams out in some transporter-like haze. And even when the Lips go electronic, it’s usually in the form of some extra beats that just float around the edge of the track before the hook kicks in. Even the lyrics, as obtuse as they can sometimes be, are not without their warmth and depth. Just check out the “Waitin’ For A Superman,” where Coyne sings “Tell everybody waitin’ for a superman that they should try to hold on as best they can/He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything/It’s just too heavy for a superman to lift” with the kind of emotion and pathos that REM wish “Everybody Hurts” had.
There are very few albums that I listen to that sound so, well, exuberant. Maybe it’s no coincidence that I recently pulled out Flowchart’s Cumulous Mood Twang. Although Flowchart is definitely more electronic, the mood is the same. And what a wonderful mood it is.
I feel bad for that frat boy… he doesn’t know what he’s missing, and I’m quite grateful for what I discovered. I’m definitely impressed by this, because it proves that you can create beautiful songs that tread on the edge of human perception, but still inject warmth and emotion into them. It’s possible to listen to this album as a sleeping aid, or when you want to jump around your living room in pop abandon. I intend to do both.