The Greatest Pop Album? The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin
No, I'm not breaking into fiction or poetry. This is the beginning of the greatest pop album since Radiohead's OK Computer, XTC's Skylarking, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom—possibly even Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Is that last one premature? Maybe. But the latest CD from the Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros. 46876-2), is a gold mine.
It's easy to miss. Except for their hit, "She Don't Use Vaseline," this Oklahoma band has had little mainstream exposure. The Soft Bulletin hasn't changed that, at least here in Chicago. A friend passed it along, and I learned why the Lips hadn't appeared on my radar screen: Images of white lab coats and Nobel prizes don't work in rock music, and the soaring, heroic synthesizers remind me of the Moody Blues' relentless, cloying Mellotron. And the singing? I kid you not, I flashed back to watching Alfalfa struggle with "A Bicycle Built for Two" in the old Spanky and Our Gang TV shows. Wayne Coyne's voice is scratchy and adolescent, as if he'd written these melodies before he hit puberty and now can't hit the high notes. I figured the Flaming Lips were just some band being cool and ironic (read: sloppy).
But something intrigued me. The drumming is propulsive. It seems you can hear the walls shaking in the recording studio. And beneath Coyne's odd vocals, the production is lush and meticulous, with bells, harps, and gongs carefully woven into guitars, piano, drums, and keyboards. Whatever the Lips think they're doing, their bulletin went through many drafts and tweaks before it was released. That's enough to endear them to any writer—I put the disc next to my CD player and gave it a few more chances.
Boom! As I puttered around my apartment one Saturday morning, The Soft Bulletin blindsided me. The songs came through the walls and down the hall to greet me like old, dear friends. Even though I'd never really sat down and listened to this CD carefully, I'd already fallen in love with it. I knew its melodies, chord changes, and moods as if I'd written them myself. (I wish.) Somehow, without my knowing it, they'd gotten to me.
The experience was like the one Coyne sings about in "The Spark that Bled": He accidentally touched his head and noticed that he was bleeding, "for how long I didn't know. / What was this, I thought, that struck me? / What kind of weapons have they got? / The softest bullet ever shot." Instead of finding a bandage, he "stood up and said, 'Yeah!' "
Born again? A moment of existential clarity? Whatever it means, The Soft Bulletin is like this soft bullet. It gets inside your musical psyche and explodes.
What does the bulletin report? Musically (get ready, J-10), it's a fin de siècle tour de force. The best of everything in pop is layered inside. Look at the songs one way and you hear the art-rock of Yes with grandiose synthesizers, noodling guitars, and angelic harmonies; from another angle you find show-tune modulations, codas, and gentleman choruses. Some songs are quiet, minimalist interludes; others rock like early Led Zeppelin. It's all held together by a vague, cinematic plan, like the Moody Blues' Days of Future Past (a favorite of Coyne's). Billed as "music and songs," The Soft Bulletin feels like a concept album or soundtrack. But the soundtrack to what?
Life with science. "The Race for the Prize" gets the ball rolling. Two scientists struggle to devise a cure. They're good and noble, right? Maybe not—"they're just human, with wives and children." They probably have mortgages, too. Do they want the cure, or is "the prize" fame and fortune? Will they rid the world of a disease or unwittingly create a nightmare like Thalidomide or Chernobyl? The string synthesizer that dominates the song agrees that something's not right. Every now and then, it wanders slightly sharp or flat.
Fear not. Science saves us in track two. "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" tells of a great rescue. They gave it all they had, exceeded known limits, and "lifted up the sun." Even though they were "drunk on their plan," it worked. The sun's life-giving light and warmth were restored. "The doubters all were stunned, the sound they made was love." Science serves humanity in the role of a lifetime. Visions of warm, fuzzy equations drift across the sunlit soundstage as Coyne brims with enthusiasm and strains to hit the high notes.
Aw, shucks. This album is going after the objectivist audiophile's heart. Science—knowledge—seems to be everything we need. That's what "The Spark that Bled" is really about. Coyne's wound signals an archetypal revelation that spreads around the globe: "From this moment on, blaring like a trumpet, / comin' from above us and somewhere below. / The confidence of knowing, descending to relieve us / of the struggle to believe it's so." If the light and knowledge of science hold the key to our salvation, science can surely give us better power amps and speakers. Who am I to have doubted, to have written columns questioning measurements and double-blind testing? Coyne's strange tales of light, sparks, and limitless knowledge are seductive. (Just one worry: Why is he bleeding?)
Science can even explain love. "What is the Light?" asks, "Is it chemically derived?" The song's gargantuan, Spock-like subtitle answers, "Affirmative, Captain." The Light is "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." Pulling out all the cosmic stops, Coyne does his best Jon Andersen (of Yes) and wails, "Looking at the space that surrounds you, / love is the place that you're drawn to." It sounds like Close to the Edge, but it's better. It's about something.
If The Soft Bulletin were an LP, it would be time to flip the record. That would be fitting, because the last songs look at salvation-by-science from a more subjective point of view. "What is the light?" fades to the dark, quiet thumping of "The Observer," an instrumental that gently cycles through a simple, plaintiff melody like Erik Satie's Gymnopédies. It's tranquil, sad, and wistful. Something's wrong, and the observer—whoever that is—knows it.
Judging from "Waitin' for a Superman," the observer must be the comic-book hero watching humanity holding up the sun. "Is it gettin' heavy?" Coyne asks. "Well, I thought it was already as heavy as could be." Science has bitten off more than it can chew, and we need help—"It's a good time for a superman to lift the Sun into the sky." Trouble is, a spoonful weighs a ton, and that's too much even for Superman. He wants to help, but can't. Coyne relays the bad news: "Tell everybody waiting for a superman / that they should try to hold on as best they can. / He hasn't dropped them, forgot them, or anything— / it's just too heavy for a superman to lift."
The Soft Bullet(in) is packed with existential gunpowder. It would be nice if Clark Kent's Superman could lend a hand. But, on second thought, Coyne's really waiting for a superman, an ;dUbermensch—the confident, clear-eyed Prometheus of the future that Friedrich Nietzsche (of "God is dead" infamy) predicted. That's more like the illumination Coyne received in "The Spark that Bled." Armed with knowledge, we can lift up the sun and rearrange the solar system the way we want it. We don't need God. But now the prophesy has failed. We're struggling—bleeding—and we can't hold out much longer. Science is either too much for us or it's not enough.
As the album plays out, Coyne turns inward, away from objectivism and science, to find a subjective abyss of despair and disappointment. "Suddenly Everything Has Changed" looks at those moments when a memory catches you off guard. Like Superman encountering kryptonite, you wither. It can happen anywhere, anytime. Bass and drums churning below him, Coyne sings, "Putting all the vegetables away / that you bought at the grocery store today. / It goes fast. / Think of the past." The song balks, the bottom drops out, and you're floating in anxiety. A great love that died? A betrayal? You fill in the blank. Whatever it is, equations, calculations, and scientific heroics are irrelevant.
Eventually you recover. The sonic loose ends begin to meet, minor chords turn major, and your spirit is restored. "Driving home the sky accelerates / and the clouds all form a geometric shape...." Then it happens again, and again in the third verse: "Putting all the clothes you washed away. / As you're foldin' up the shirts you hesitate..." Everything has indeed changed. Grab a Prozac and hold on. We're going down.
A garbled chorus of voices counsels a depressed, dragging friend in "The Gash": "Is that gash in your leg / really why you must stop? / Cause I've noticed all the others, / though they're gashed, they're still going." We're all soldiers here, and a friend (a "wounded mathematician," the subtitle says) is giving up. Coyne throws a hardball that would make Nietzsche proud: "explosions" and "wounds" are no excuse. It's all a question of will and fortitude. "I feel like the real reason that you're quitting / is that you're admitting / that you lost all the will to battle on." Coyne breaks scene and turns to the camera to sum up the situation: "Will the fight for our sanity / be the fight of our lives / now that we've lost all the reasons / that we thought that we had?" Nietzsche's pep talks won't help anymore—he went insane, too.
Let's see. We're not saved by science, after all. The sun is so heavy it's about to fall. Life is plagued by anxiety attacks, and we're fighting for our sanity. What's left to do? Nothing but fall apart. The battle continues as Coyne vocalizes a military snare (brrrap bap bap...). "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" is a slow, graceful ballad about the impossibility of living without love. His voice is now strong and assured, and his overdubbed harmonies cascade in a beautiful end-of-the-century reply to "All You Need is Love." Lennon & McCartney's Aquarian chant of "Love is all you need" becomes "feeling yourself disintegrate" as the song cycles and fades. Love may be all you need, but Coyne has good question: What if you don't have it? (It's only a movie, it's only a movie...)
With a crack of the snare and a harp's optimistic glissando, we're back into alternate mixes of "The Race for the Prize" and "Waitin' for a Superman"—the struggle for knowledge that pulls us one way (side 1), the struggle for love and inner strength that pulls us the other (side 2). The credits roll, and we emerge into the brisk night air. There is no plot, great line, or scene to mull over because this bulletin is, well, softer and more impressionistic than a film. What hangs in the air are sounds and songs that portray the dangers, dramas, and elations (check out "Buggin"') of ordinary life.
I've listened to The Soft Bulletin at least 30 times in the last few months, and I'm still finding feelings and ideas to toy with. There are no grand answers here. Like any good work of art (yes, art), this album orients and disorients you. It doesn't preach. When it's over, I never know quite what to think—about life, that is.
About audio and music, the truth is obvious: Audiophiles are the fortunate soldiers in Coyne's relentless battle because we can squeeze every sound and idea from this album. Will it show off your system's sonic capabilities like an audiophile recording? No. But play it for your friends anyway. You might get hit by the softest bullet. You might not want to take it out of your CD player. You might stand up and say "Yeah!"