Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a weekly column where we take a close look at a classic album. Maybe it's an album you haven't heard of, maybe it's an album you're aware of but haven't ever bothered giving a proper spin, maybe it's an album you love and wouldn't mind being reminded of. Regardless, the goal is to spark conversation about the albums that made today's music what it is.
If you hadn't noticed, this is Andrew Treske doing a guest slot for Ethan Butler this week. We are gonna take a closer look at The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, one of my favorite albums of all time. It's just so damn strange and beautiful.
The Flaming Lips almost weren't our Flaming Lips. The band that continues to push the limits of alternative music with their strange whims? The band with one of the best live shows on the planet?... Yeah, they almost didn't make it out of the 90s. They emerged in the early 90s as a part of the lo-fi alternative and burgeoning indie music scene (Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., and Guided By Voices were comparable acts). They even scored an unlikely hit about a girl, jelly, tangerines, and Vaseline that made minor waves nationally. Although intriguing, they floundered commercially after their hit and by 1996, the band was in deep trouble. Their guitarist, Ronald Jones, whose off-kilter lo-fi guitar style formed the basis of their sound, quit the band.
For a band whose sound was comprised mainly of guitar squall and crashing drums, this pretty much amounted to a death sentence. They had two choices: adapt and survive or become another also-ran of college radio. But how do you just "adapt" and create an entirely new sound and identity for your band? For a rock band working with little budget money from their label in the late 90s, there simply weren't many options available. Technology had not yet advanced to the point of allowing musicians to have greater access to novel soundscapes and methods of instrumentation at a low cost.
They looked within for some truly brilliant sound-engineering -- something I am not typically well versed in, but this album is something fierce in that department -- and re-shaping of their music. They famously restricted the use of guitars for the entire album to see how far they could go. At the end of the recording process they permitted guitar, but the limitation proved a masterstroke. In an entire album of untold inspiration, the Flaming Lips pushed themselves, their sound, and the very way they thought about music to create something of sheer brilliance and idiosyncratic wonder. There has not been anything like it... Before or since.
The album opens with "Race For The Prize", a goofy, earnest, and epic tale of two scientists racing against one another to save humanity. John Bonham drums crash as the song begins with a distorted string-sounding instrumentation forming the melody. It is cacaphonous and delightfully strange; a hint at what is to follow. The string-sounding instumentation is actually purposefully warped tape that multi-instrumental genius Steven Drozd damaged to form the off-kilter sound. When the vocals begin, a different drum kit appears, providing a gentler background for lead singer, Wayne Coyne, to spin his tale. The two scientists push each other for the good of all, but their own frailties must be considered. Lyrics like, "Theirs is to win / If it kills them/ They're just humans / With wives and children", pack a punch. It is full of wide-eyed innocence and perhaps campy, but also wildly human if you allow the grandeur to grasp you.
"A Spoonful Weighs A Ton" is next, its lush piano melody beginning the track in lovely fashion. The song is about combatting seemingly unstoppable forces and triumphing in fantastical fashion. It is a song of hope and beauty. Perhaps naive, but sometimes electing for optimism and wide-eyed innocence is the best route. After the orchestral and grand beauty of the first verse, the bridge hits... and my word. Deep fuzzy synth and drums crash down in epic fury, before returning with smooth bossanova-like drums and the previous instrumentation. It is a stunning and swift change, but logical in the most illogical way. As the track fades, Coyne sings, "Yelling as hard as they can / The doubters all were stunned / Heard louder than a gun / The sound they made was love", once more it is cheesy, but earnest. A reminder that the greatest triumphs in life are often the direct result of love.
Woozy synths, elegant percussion, and soft electric guitar begin "The Spark That Bled", a song filled with intricacy and evolution -- as is all of the album. It is about the moment intense inspiration strikes and creates that bizarre bizarre euphoric energy. The first phase cedes to a deep blues riff that once more makes no sense and all the sense in the world at once. The chorus is wonderfully goofy with Wayne proclaiming, "I stood up and I said yeah! / I stood up and I said Hey! Yeah!" at his joy for moments of divine inspiration. The third verse brings another phase to the song, with a driving bass riff joining crashing drums while electric guitar rapidly weaves in and out. The song eventually fades back to the initial downtempo beginning, with Wayne realizing the inspiration is gone. Fleeting but beautiful, as it typically is.
"The Spiderbite Song" is an absolutely gorgeous song of friendship and love. Wayne wrote it about recent brushes with mortality that his bandmates Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins had experienced, each verse telling the story of their troubles. Steven, while using heroin intravenously by injecting into his hand, had developed such a bad infection that doctors thought they may have to amputate. To hide his embarrassment, he told everyone the problems with his hand developed because of a spiderbite. Michael, while driving with his wife, had a tire completely blow out and got in a harrowing wreck but survived without injury.
The song begins with a tornado of sound that is still so invigorating and interesting, even though I have listened to it countless times. They altered the speed of regular snares to make the whirring signature sound of the percussion. The piano persists with the beautiful melody as tumult occurs everywhere around it and perfectly combines with Wayne's heartfelt lyrics to make something deeply emotional. Wayne fits so much in about interdependence and its essential function in humans with the lyrics, "I was glad that it didn't destroy you / How sad that would be / Cause if it destroyed you / It would destroy me."
"What Is the Light" is one of my favorite love songs ever. It is romantic in such a surprising way, the beginning of the song sounding more like a dark dream than anything else. Deep piano reverberates with heartbeat-like percussion pulsing beneath it. But Wayne sings beautiful and true lyrics about the strange chemical sensations that love brings about. When that person in your life has a glow and light that others just don't have. "What is the light / That you have / Shining all around you / Is it chemically derived?" is so innocent in its confusion and wonder of what is happening with this other person. It makes you think of those moments that are indelibly marked with any person you love, romantically or not, where time, light, and space seem somehow off or different in a magical way.
"Waiting For Superman" is a song about coming to terms with experiencing tragedy, an inescapable truth of life. Wayne wrote the song about his father's quick death from cancer and the death of his understood family unit. It is understandably melancholic and contemplative, but trudges along with uptempo drums not permitting the song to become morose. Wayne sings to those experiencing those types of terrible and inevitable forces with the lyrics, "Tell everybody / Waiting for superman / That they should try to hold on / Best they can / He hasn't dropped them / Forgot them / Or anything / It's just too heavy for Superman to lift". There is tremendous beauty and benevolence in the world, but everyone leaves it, and everyone has some type of scarring.
"Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" is another thematically heavy song about the imagined process of eventual death. The sensation of feeling yourself disintegrate in essence. It is a further meditation on death and dying, but one that feels cosmic and spiritual in scope and contemplation. The breathily voiced percussion that begins the song is another inspired stroke that immediately draws you in. Lilting bass and hypnotic guitar twangs create a spacy and melancholic atmosphere worthy of contemplation of mortality. For there is beauty in the attempt to conceptualize and grasp it. The lyrics are brief but the best on the album and a fitting way to close the album lyrically.
"Love in our life is just too valuable / Oh, to feel for even a second without it / But life without death is just impossible / Oh, to realize something within us is ending"
The Soft Bulletin is a soundtrack of reinvention, and more accurately, awakening. It came about in a time of turmoil in every possible sense for the band. Guitarist leaves, label threatens to drop the group, multi-instrumenal wizard Steven Drozd struggles with drug addiction, bassist Michael Ivins almost dying in a freak car accident, and lead singer Wayne Coyne's father suddenly dying from cancer. Rather than implode, the group looked inwardly to produce some of the greatest and singular music ever made. You may have noticed that I did not mention many influences on this album and that is not by coincidence. It is wonky, weird, and the most organic form of The Flaming Lips possible.
The Soft Bulletin is an album of despair, personal darkness, anxiety, and just trying to grasp the reality of mortality; but, it is also one of heartwarming splendor, endearing goofiness, beauty, and grace. An album so large in thematic scope that mere words would never suffice. The medium of music had to. And it did.