Music Features

Happy Anniversary... The Soft Bulletin

“We've often gone so far into songwriting that, for us, it's sometimes the case that the less of a song there is then the more room there is for it to be a song.” - Steven Drozd

“I'm not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself. I want it to sound like the composer.” - Leonard Bernstein

Alright, let’s face it, The Soft Bulletin is a modern masterpiece, a triumph in an industry that rarely allows the actualization of an artist’s unbridled ambition, and there’s no other album (especially in The Flaming Lips’ own canon) that can quite match it. For the members of The Lips, The Soft Bulletin marked a remarkable turning point, both in their commercial appeal and their sound. Without the fuzz-laden presence of ex-member Ronald Jones, the retooled lineup was able to bypass their typical garage-rock bombast in favor of lavishly arranged, hyper-melodic grandeur. Instead of masking Wayne Coyne's vulnerable voice with outright weirdness, they complement it with highly emotional faux-orchestrations — elevating the band from psych-rock auteurs to path-making composers.

With that said, the contributions of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drodz to The Soft Bulletin are truly that of inspiration. His malleable approach to drums  — moving from a delicate “Eagles” touch to a forceful “Bonham”-esque thud — provides a uniquely graceful drive to each and every song. His keyboards and synth orchestrations could make even the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Riz Ortolani scoff with envy. Without his supplementary orchestral prowess, Coyne’s fantastical ideas on songs like Buggin and What Is The Light? would sound thin and most likely fall short of their intended emotional impact. Just the same, instrumentals The Observer and Sleeping On The Roof could have easily been lazy filler-material, but instead take on a life of their own, more closely resembling a warped Disney soundtrack — you know, the kind that would feature Donald Duck dropping acid and reaching a climax filled with lonely, melancholic self-perception.

“You start to see this cliche, and it’s actually your life” - Wayne Coyne

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” - Frederick Nietzsche

However, the true brilliance of The Soft Bulletin comes in its simplicity. Advanced orchestral arrangements aside, the album is entirely tied together with incredibly straightforward lyrical themes. As much as Wayne Coyne’s songs are very much about his own experiences, those experiences in themselves are broad enough that almost anyone can identify with them — which gives the impression that he isn’t just simply singing to you, the listener, but rather communicating these feelings on behalf of the entire human family. Coyne’s lyrics reflect an innocent, yet nonetheless dark period of life — a time where you’re all too eager to learn about the world around you and how it works, which inevitably leads you to discover a lot of pain and a lot of horrible, terrifying truths about yourself and the people around you. 

In this regard, Waiting For A Superman, A Spoonful Weighs A Ton, Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, and Race For The Prize are perhaps the most potent songs of the bunch, perfectly capturing that sense of sheer anxiety faced by anyone who allows themselves to feel the weight of the world at large. It feels weird to put it this way, but I’m happy to report that all of The Soft Bulletin’s lyrical messages hold up remarkably well, even fifteen years later… But that’s only because we are all still so fucked in this world — truly, inexorably fucked and things are never going to get better. Trust me, they’re just not. 

But the sun still shines on even the deepest pits of despair, right? As much as the circumstances around us spin erratically out of our control, The Flaming Lips remind us that we still have full command over ourselves and our state of being. Quite simply, once we can reclaim our existential crises as our own and take ownership of our sense of mortality, we can just as quickly reach a state of self-actualization. And that’s essentially what The Soft Bulletin attempts to do — it repurposes the inherent dread that’s synonymous with our very human experience and aims it in the direction of reckless abandon. The bottom line is that, even fifteen years removed, The Soft Bulletin is still an undeniably essential listen for every single living organism afflicted with the human condition, let alone the avid (and typically subterranean) record collector.