Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Soft Bulletin (1999)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, this ninth album from the Flaming Lips is their masterpiece. Dig a little deeper and you find the people making the claim are Amazon verified purchasers, but whatever. That's Wikipedia for you! The Soft Bulletin and the album that followed were also the high point of the trio's fame, for those inclined to embrace or reject on that basis. That puts them basically on the rise here. But I wish someone would make a case for this album, which always seems to come up short for me. Actually, I'll say that one song at a time listened to closely can be rewarding—that makes it workable anyway in a multi-CD shuffle type of mode. (Maybe in that regard it merits the comparisons to Pet Sounds, which I sometimes suspect have more to do with the theremin.) The moody brood of "What Is the Light?" and the soothing swamp of "The Observer." The plangent tender sadness of "The Spiderbite Song." The screaming glories of "The Gash." The aching throb of "Race for the Prize," the album opener and one of the two singles. The Peter Mokran mix of the other single, "Waitin' for a Superman," which hums with a bracing natural sweetness. Natural sweetness, in fact, is one of the band's enduring and greatest strengths. All this points to what I love most about the album that came next and my favorite by them, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a one-of-a-kind that proceeds out of children's fantasies but remarkably with almost no cloying sentimentalities. Just the weirdness and the goodness—and so beautiful. I think my problem with the Flaming Lips might be that they're good at things which don't naturally coexist. They have a penchant for psychedelicized studio wonkery, with harsh edges that scrape at your head, which famously produced Zaireeka, a 4-CD album in which all four discs are intended to be played simultaneously. They have a reputation as a great live act—I'm sorry I never saw them in the '90s. They're not afraid of noise. And yet they can write the sweetest pop confections. In the songwriting they appear to act as a unit as all songs are credited equally to the band's three principles, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Michael Ivins. Or maybe my problem is that drummer Drozd's playing is so intrusive, too loud and ornate and too often into the middle of everything. Obviously this is as intended—a feature not a bug. So I'll take my bad with my good. Maybe it bolsters the rock bona fides to have all that random booming and stamping going on, or something, but it's wearying. I'm sticking with Yoshimi.

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