Rewind Review: The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)

The Soft Bulletin marked a departure for the Flaming Lips from their heavy, psychedelic guitars to, well, a softer touch and even more psychedelia.  It’s a lovely record that explores the band’s now-frequent themes of the universe, the self, death, and love.

“Race for the Prize,” for example, is the story of two scientists burdened with the competition of finding a cure for something, even though the stress of it might kill them and leave their wives widows and their children orphans.  The initial swell of keyboards lets us know right away that this won’t be a typical Flaming Lips record.

We learn that the scientists were successful on “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” even though the race did indeed kill them.  The cure they found?  Love.  It’s always been right in front of us.  The percussion on “The Spark That Bled” blends rock drums, orchestral beats, and psychedelic drippiness as lead singer Wayne Coyne sings about a moment of enlightenment.  “The Spiderbite Song” has Coyne thanking the cosmos that friends of his didn’t die too soon from things as varied as a spider bite, a car crash, or falling into crazy love.

“Buggin'” is, appropriately, a song about insects.  It’s rather peppy and fun, even as it discusses bugs dying against your car’s windshield.  I can’t describe “What Is the Light?” any better than the notes on the back of the album: “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.”  That’s what this lovely, shimmering song not only discusses but also makes you believe.

If you ever doubted the Flaming Lips are inspired by Pink Floyd, just listen to “The Observer,” which is practically a lost cut from the Dark Side of the Moon sessions.  Wayne Coyne described “Waitin’ for a Superman” as “a sad song” when I saw them live two years ago.  It is a song about depression, and how even Superman can fail so we shouldn’t be crushed when we do the same.  It’s one of the Lips’ greatest songs, really.  It’s uplifting and bittersweet at the same time.

“Suddenly Everything Has Changed” is about one of Coyne’s favorite subjects – embracing the idea that one day we’ll all be dead.  Little moments of existential panic are actually reminders that we should appreciate things like the clouds we see on the drive home, the vegetables we just bought at the store, and the fact that we can fold laundry while floating on an orb in an endless universe. “The Gash” is a call to fight on even when to do so exposes wounds in us that must be healed no matter how frightening it is to confront them.

“Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” continues the Lips’ theme of not being afraid of death, for “life without death is just impossible,” as Coyne sings while the rest of the band plays bright keyboards and whimsical guitars behind him.

The album ends with the instrumental “Sleeping on the Roof,” a beautiful send-off that could be the sound of a dream, a funeral, a birth, or all three.  The entire album could be played during any of those events.  It’s another masterpiece by the Flaming Lips and still uplifting after nearly twenty years.

Keep your mind open.