It was released over a decade ago, but The Soft Bulletin remains one of the most enduring albums by one of alt/synth-rock’s most enduring bands.
The Flaming Lips’ ninth studio album consistently appears in the upper half of “Best of” lists and is appropriately lauded not only as a precursor to the popular YoshimiBattles the Pink Robots, but also as a standalone effort.
Following their 1997 album, Zaireeka, which was a comparative mess of experimental noise spread across four separate discs, Soft Bulletin marked a new approach for the Flaming Lips. The vocals of Wayne Coyne remained distinctively delicate, “papery” even, and almost childish.
These adjectives might sound negative, but in this case it is the opposite. The fragile vocals are always best when soaring. Layering them over lush guitar, synthesizer, and percussion adds urgency: on an instinctual level one almost worries about the vocals being pulled under by the weight of the music.
Track eight, “Waitin’ for a Superman,” is a perfect example. It is one of the most accessible and straightforward tracks on the album. It has a regular, repeating chorus, unlike the episodic songs “The Spark that Bled” and “Suddenly Everything has Changed.”
The heavy bass drum thrums under more than one layer of piano melody. On top of this Coyne sings, “I thought it was already as heavy as can be.” His light voice acts as foil to the deep drums. Instead of being overwhelmed by them, as we expect, the vocals create a perfect balance between heavy and light, light and dark. We can’t help but keep listening.
The album does a lot with extremes and contrast, especially between light and dark/heavy. Much of this is due to Steven Drozd’s drumming, which demands praise on this album. It is relentlessly addicting and effective. Tracks like “What is the Light?” and “The Gash” showcase rhythms so deep and deliberate as to be sinister. This contrasts directly with the title and subject matter of “What is the Light” and underscores the grandiose choir and orchestral elements of “The Gash,” keeping it from creeping into over-the-top territory.
“The Observer,” an instrumental break in the middle of the album, is almost dirge-like, with dramatic strings and a muted drum track that beats like a heart.
In the album overall, these heavy songs are counterbalanced by more whimsical ones like “The Spiderbite Song,” which references an incident in which Drozd claimed to have been bitten by a spider, although he later admitted to suffering from what was actually an infected drug injection site. “Sleeping on the Roof” similarly employs airy piano parts and sparing percussion.
Even the album cover is a meditation on contrast. It is a photograph of Beat personality Neal Cassady that first appeared in black and white in Life magazine. Cassady, a looming figure in his own right, is backlit, casting a shadow that renders him larger than life. In effect, reality creates something bigger than itself.
That is what The Soft Bulletin feels like. The music is greater than the sum of its parts. Much of this expansive sound is thanks to producer Dave Fridmann.
But the emotional potency has everything to do with the musicians. With this album, the Flaming Lips produced what was definitely their most mature work up to that point, and perhaps of their career.
* Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN