Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Soft Bulletin -- The Flaming Lips -- Review

The Soft Bulletin (1999)
Rating: 14
"Life without death is just impossible / Oh, to realize something ending within us"
Best Song: The Gash or Race for the Prize
Worst Song: The Observer

       ...yeah, it's a 14. A low 14, but still, a 14. "The Pet Sounds of the 90s", the critics called it. And rightfully so, as no other contemporary of this album was willing to be so....sissy-ish. I mean, just listen to that opening! Sweeping harps, swooning synth strings, a triumphant piano line -- this is some seriously sappy stuff. But the melodies are SO GOOD that the normally cheesy arrangements actually become emotionally involving. And in all honesty, I'm kind of a sucker for schmaltzy arrangements like this anyway, so I would really never dislike this kind of thing the way some people would. If Kurt Cobain had heard this, he would have probably broken out into spastic fits of nausea. 
       But somehow, the "hipster" press latched on to this thing for dear life, and I'm not sure why. I mean, geez, this album's the very definition of all the things that the late 90s press hated! Sentimentality, prog-rock tendencies, tear-jerking melodies, lavish arrangements -- this is the anti-Slanted and Enchanted, that's for sure.
       Hell, it's the anti-Hit to Death in the Future Head, for that matter! As I mentioned in the Clouds review, Zaireeka took the band in a far-off art-rock destination, and this album most certainly continued that streak. Not that I mind, though, as I was never too head-over-heels with the indie-rock stuff, as much as I respected it. But now that I think about it, CTM was actually leading to this album, albeit somewhat subtly. The epic swoop of "The Abandoned Hospital Ship", the gloriously busy production of "Psychiatric Explorations", the trumpets and other assorted "regal" instruments in "Bad Days" -- all of these things were most certainly headed in this direction.
       And what a direction it is. As far as I can tell, it's something of a concept album roughly divided into three parts. The first one (comprising tracks 1-3) tells of the creation and later deployment of the atomic bomb, the second one (comprising tracks 4-6) is essentially about the "power of love" (I told you this thing was cheesy!), and the final one touches on the lasting power and effect of negative experiences in life (such as death) and how to move on from them. 
       Now, my analyzation of the last two parts probably won't be argued by anyone, but the first third is a point of contention. Admittedly, I first read the idea of it being about the atomic bomb on the internet, but as soon as I read it, the lyrics to those tracks immediately clicked and made sense. Think about it -- "Race for the Prize" is about the scientists creating the bomb ("Their (goal) is to win, if it kills them", "Upwards to the vanguard where the pressure is too high"), "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" is about the launch of the bomb ("And though they were sad, they rescued everyone", "Being drunk on their plan, they lifted up the sun", and of course the title itself referring to the relatively small bomb packing so much power), and "The Spark That Bled" is about the effect on those who were within the radius of the bomb ("I accidentally touched my head, and noticed that I had been bleeding", "What was this that struck me? What kind of weapons have they got? The softest bullet ever shot", "From this moment on, blaring like a trumpet coming from above us"). But enough about the lyrics -- how's the music?? 
        Well to start with, we have the fabulous "Race for the Prize", chock-full of the aforementioned strings, harps, and pianos. There's a great vocal melody, that piano is infectious as all-get-out, and the whole track works like a charm. No flaws here, ladies and gents -- this just might be the greatest Lips song ever. Triumphant, beautiful, inspiring...I've heard it hundreds of times, and I could hear it another hundred more. Such a classic.
       Another definite highlight is "The Gash". It features an incredibly hilarious and over-the-top opening that simply HAS to be purposefully over-pompous, as well as one MONSTER of a drum groove. Seriously, if the song was nothing but that one groove, it'd still be amazing, and there's also a catchy-as-heck vocal melody sung mainly by choir. (Oh, did I mention I'm a sucker for choirs? I am. Big time. That's probably why I like early 70s Pink Floyd so much, to be honest) Another winner is the gorgeous "Waitin' for a Superman". It features yet another amazing vocal melody (probably the best on the album) and a shockingly emotive and pretty vocal performance from Wayne. Good stuff.
        There's also the catchy, tempo-shifting "Suddenly Everything Has Changed", which is great, despite the slightly overlong instrumental sections. I particularly like the lyrics; the main point is that although our lives can go on after experiencing a tragedy, whenever that event crosses our mind, our disposition suddenly changes. Good point, Wayne. Speaking of tempo-shifting, there's also "The Spark That Bled", which starts out well-enough, but quickly improves with each proceeding section. That whole "I stood up and I said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahhhhh" line is one of the most gorgeous things ever put to tape. MAN, are those harmonies pretty. The sorta psychedelic "jam" section is also quite good, even if it's pretty much a direct rip-off of "Any Colour You Like" from Dark Side of the Moon. STILL speaking of tempo-shifting songs, there's the epic "What Is the Light?" which is yet another solid, star-gazing effort (literally -- the song's chorus features the line "Look out into space, it surrounds you!") from the boys about the power of love. And no, it's not a Huey Lewis cover.
        There's also the irresistible "Buggin'", featuring a great melody that's as catchy as anything else on the album combined with some adorable lyrics and one of the happiest, most-positive moods I've ever heard. Plus, the piano line is fantastic. The album also features two ambient-ish instrumentals -- "The Observer" and "Sleeping On the Roof", which are both quite nice. "The Observer", while a bit overlong, actually reminds me of the fantastic "Through Hollow Lands" from Brian Eno's Before and After Science, and that's a definite compliment. 

       And of course there's also the lovely penultimate track, "Feeling Yourself Disentigrate", which segues directly proceeds the soothing "Sleeping On the Roof". I can't overstate just how powerful "Disentigrate" truly is. The melody is simply gorgeous, the lyrics are extremely affecting (the above quote is taken from this song), and the mood created by the song is absolutely spell-binding. It's the perfect finale to this extremely emotional album, and it brings all the catharsis and pathos you'd hope it would. Brilliant.
        And that's The Soft Bulletin. It's definitely the best place to start with the band, and it just might be my favorite album of the 90s. Get it immediately -- a rock collection without this album is a sad rock collection indeed.

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