20 Years of The Soft Bulletin
When discussing the touchstone moments in a band’s discography, you’re more often than not dealing with a seminal debut, a killer follow-up or a make-or-break third album. It’s quite rare to discuss a seminal record beyond the first five-album stretch – let alone getting all the way up to album number nine. If there’s one thing The Flaming Lips have proven in their 35-plus years as a band, however, it’s that there’s no singular road to success. Nor is there a proven formula. The Oklahoma natives have forged an entire career out of daring to be different, earning themselves a reputation as being fundamentally fearless – and, for many fans, it all began with The Soft Bulletin back in 1999.
At the time it arrived, The Flaming Lips had reached desperate times and desperate measures. Their previous album, 1997’s Zaireeka, was one of the biggest commercial and critical disasters in the history of indie-rock (all you need to know is they attempted to put out a four-CD album where all the discs had to be played at once). Their one hit single, 1993’s “She Don’t Use Jelly,” was well and truly in the rearview mirror. The band, now a trio, had carved in a niche of experimental and abrasive psychedelic rock that bore little fruit beyond cult status.
It’s for this, among many more reasons, that The Soft Bulletin was such a remarkably surprising album. It’s one of the most melodic, poppy and ethereal-sounding records that The Flaming Lips ever put out – but to deem it as selling out in the face of what they’d been doing on their previous albums in the 90s is to miss the point entirely. By endeavouring to expand and venture out into the great unknown the way that they did on The Soft Bulletin, they were staying even more true to their nature than if they’d have stuck to their self-imposed status quo.
A lot of this encouragement came from producer Dave Fridmann, who first came in originally to work on the band’s 1990 album In a Priest Driven Ambulance. Consider Fridmann to the Flips what George Martin was to The Beatles: Of the 16 studio albums by the band, Fridmann has produced 10. He knows the band’s inner mechanics intimately, and thus knew exactly how to bring out the best in them in the creative process of The Soft Bulletin.
It’s clear from as early as the opening number, “Race for the Prize,” which has gone on to become one of the band’s signature songs and a live staple. With its walloping red-level drums, its small empire of synthesizers and its sci-fi lyricism, “Race” would not only be a standard-bearer for the album itself, but for the band’s entire sound going forward. One could apply such accolades to a myriad of points along the runtime of The Soft Bulletin: The swelling six-minute slowburn of “The Spark That Bled,” the understated and wryly emotive “Waitin’ on a Superman,” or even the slow-motion trip “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” As a listener, you can’t help but be entirely compelled at the moving parts at work across the board.
In a year where a lot of music released would soon become significantly dated, there’s a freshness and vitality to The Soft Bulletin that has allowed it to stay within the lexicon of essential alternative albums. Although fantastical and futuristic by nature, it draws a lot from vintage pop and rock of a bygone era – see the lavish arrangement work from The Beach Boys’ seminal Pet Sounds, or the orchestral moments tracked on Neil Young’s Harvest. By merging the past and the future as songwriters and composers, The Flaming Lips were able to create something that feels as though it’s perennially within the present. There’s a lot to be said for that.
To assess the impact and influence of The Soft Bulletin, you need only look at the array of artists that have covered songs from it. Ben Folds, Mastodon, Iron & Wine, Coldplay, the late Scott Weiland, Japanese Breakfast… admittedly, a mixtape with some jolting transitions. Still, the fact that these acts – all lauded in their own realms for their own songwriting abilities – all fall within the Venn diagram of loving The Soft Bulletin should be proof enough of just how special a record this truly is.
As the band prepare to bring their 20thanniversary tour of The Soft Bulletin to Australia, local audiences will finally have a chance to experience a true piece de resistance enacted live from start to finish. A Flaming Lips show is unmissable at the best of times – full of celebration, sing-alongs and unadulterated joy. With the promise of The Soft Bulletin attached, however, means this tour is nothing short of essential. Stand up and say yes.
Words by David James Young.