When Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots came out in 2002, The Flaming Lips bore the glow of seasoned pros, masters of neo-psychedelia. It’s true that the Oklahoma band, led by Wayne Coyne, had been plying their trade since the mid-1980s, but their elevation to alt-rock prestige really only occurred in the wake of 1999’s The Soft Bulletin.
The Flaming Lips started out as a bunch of scraggly musicians with a thing for drugs, distortion and a skew-whiff viewpoint informed as much by Butthole Surfers as Syd Barrett. After signing with Warner Bros. in the midst of the alt-rock boom, they had a moderate hit with the 1993 single, ‘She Don’t Use Jelly.’
For those who discovered the band in later years – perhaps while headlining one of many Australian festivals over the last decade – seeing ‘Jelly’ on rage has probably been the cause of immense bafflement. Could this really be the same band responsible for philosophical pieces of baroque pop like ‘Do You Realize??’ and ‘Fight Test’?
‘Jelly’ was the only thing resembling a hit from the band’s first phase, and after Clouds Taste Metallic flopped, guitarist Ronald Jones said his goodbyes. While initially confronting, Jones’ exit encouraged the remaining band members to break away from their erstwhile penchant for noisy arrangements and lyrical fruit-loopery.
The band’s next two LPs were more or less made in tandem. The first, Zaireeka, was never, on any planet, going to be a hit – each track’s constituent parts were spread across four separate discs that had to be played simultaneously. But its follow-up was The Soft Bulletin, which remains The Flaming Lips’ magnum opus.
The Soft Bulletin recently celebrated its 20th birthday. Here is a closer look at the album’s five standout tracks.
Race for the Prize
The Flaming Lips entered The Soft Bulletin determined to eschew guitars from their arrangements. So, with help from producer, Dave Fridmann (effectively the band’s George Martin or Nigel Godrich), the album glistens with midi-orchestration that takes cues from Disney soundtracks more than the prevailing sounds of American alt-rock.
Led by multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, ‘Race for the Prize’ is anthemic without being cloying. Coyne’s vocals are pushed right out front, edging towards a singer-songwriter aesthetic, but Race’ is still a curiosity in the grand scheme of things – it’s not quite ‘My Way’.
Coyne’s lyrics observe “two scientists competing for the cure of all mankind”. They’re so determined that they’ll risk their lives in order to claim their prize. The Flaming Lips’ stylistic reinvention mightn’t have been life-threatening, but The Soft Bulletin’s opening track revealed a band ready to give it everything.
A Spoonful Weighs a Ton
Coyne claims not to know the origins of ‘A Spoonful Weighs a Ton’s opening line, “And though they were sad, they rescued everyone.” But sung in his distinct timbre, which sounds like Neil Young with a self-induced croak, it immediately rouses a feeling of melancholy.
‘A Spoonful’ is a song in two distinct movements. Coyne’s verses – as well as the repeated refrain, “Being drunk on their plan, they lifted up the sun” – float over twinkling keyboards and synthesised strings and woodwinds, gesturing towards yet-untapped existential possibilities.
After each refrain comes a dizzying, instrumental segment made up of synth bass and Drozd’s John Bonham-esque drumming, which is also the song’s major hook.
Perhaps The Soft Bulletin’s strongest link to the sound of ’90s alt-rock is the band’s regular implementation of loud-quiet-loud dynamics. They’re in effect on ‘Buggin’’, but The Flaming Lips don’t wait until the chorus before injecting blood flow courtesy of pounding drums and a meaty distorted bass line.
‘Buggin’’ shares similarities with ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, only the lysergic intimations are replaced by Coyne singing gleefully about mosquitos flying in the air as you comb your hair.
‘Buggin’’ is The Soft Bulletin at its most effusive and fun, and it illustrates you don’t need electric guitars to make room-shaking rock music.
Waitin’ for a Superman
In behind-the-scenes footage taken on the set of the ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ music video, Drozd offers a summary of the album’s second single. “It kind of drives home the point of basically we’re all fucked and things aren’t going to be getting much better, so you might as well try and make the best of it.”
Coyne’s lyrics aren’t nearly as brash as his band mate’s interpretation, but the song does reflect on the irrepressible charge of decay. You can pray all day for miracles, Coyne seems to suggest, but death will get us all in the end.
It’s The Flaming Lips at their most earnest – a descriptor you’d scarcely have been able to apply to the band’s earlier work. Of all Coyne’s quotable existential musings, “Is it getting heavy? I thought it was already as heavy as can be,” ranks among the most resonant.
Feeling Yourself Disintegrate
Reflections on death are sprinkled throughout every album from The Soft Bulletin onwards. Coyne’s father was going through a serious illness at the time of the album’s creation, which led to a more unguarded approach from the frontman.
‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ is the direct precursor to Yoshimi’s ‘Do You Realize??’ “Life without death is just impossible / Oh, to realise something is ending within us,” sings Coyne in the song’s only verse. The song title is then repeated to the point of becoming a zen mantra.
The ban on guitars was lifted for this track, with Coyne’s acoustic strumming leading the way before the song transitions into an enveloping psych-rock number. However, where The Flaming Lips might previously have cranked into a noisy devolution, ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ favours tasteful clean guitar licks and an Olympian synth melody.
The Flaming Lips play The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on 30th September – 1st October. Head here for tickets.