A word that gets tossed around way too much in critical circles is the word “essential.” If you say something is essential, you mean people have to have it. It is necessary. Vitally necessary. Which is why smart critics don’t do it very often. There are very few cultural things that are essential. If you own any sort of video game playing apparatus, Half Life 2 and Psychonauts are essential. You should be playing them right now (0r as soon as you finish reading this incredibly non-essential blog). If you like theatre, Shakespeare is essential (as is Tony Kushner). If you like breathing, oxygen is essential. If you like Sarah Palin, a lobotomy is essential.
And if you like music, you have no business not owning The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips. Yeah, Yoshimi is great, At War with the Mystics is good, but The Soft Bulletin is fucking essential. It is your duty as a cool person to own this album and to give it your full attention (I can only assume that you are a cool person if you read Bollocks!, assuming also that you aren’t just here to assault people with grammatically embarrassing comments).
Flaming Lips albums run the gamut from good to great, with occasional (okay, frequent) stops at weird, but The Soft Bulletin manages to raise the bar all the way up to “Holy fuck, I’ve never heard anything at all like that.” It’s part pop album and part sci-fi movie; occasionally, it’s space gospel (“The Gash”) and sometimes it’s Bizarro-World FM Radio (“Buggin”, which is also what the Beach Boys should’ve tried to sound like). But it’s always, from “Race for the Prize” (the first one) to “Waitin’ for a Superman” (the second one), absolutely drenched in beauty. In fact, “Beautiful,” is the word that most often comes to my mind to describe The Soft Bulletin, and it doesn’t come anywhere close to describing what the album really is. The Germans, who have better descriptive words than we do, might have a word that means, “transcendentally, inexpressibly awesome experience.” German-speakers, get cracking, and let me know what you find.
When I set out to compile (ever so slowly, dear reader[s?]) a list of the best albums released in my lifetime, I knew the Flaming Lips would have an entry or two. The list is always evolving because I’m constantly listening and re-listening to music (and because I’m a moody bitch about music). I think The Soft Bulletin started out somewhere in the 20s on the preliminary list. When I put an album on the list (before I write about it), I “test” it by listening to it several times to see if it really is one of the 29 best albums released in my lifetime. I have to be 100% assured of an album’s place in my life before I tell you about it. That way, I don’t feel like I’m blowing smoke up your ass when I tell you something like, “The Soft Bulletin is fucking essential.” Now, here the album stands, the third best album released in my lifetime, ranking right up there near London Calling and whatever #2 turns out to be (is the suspense killing you? Yeah, probably not). My list is nothing if not a meritocracy and The Soft Bulletin has earned its spot.
Let’s start with the obvious: great songs tend to make albums great (unless you only have 1 0r 2 great songs on an album of bad songs; that makes your album kind of infuriating). The Soft Bulletin is wall-to-wall great songs (two of the songs are so great they appear twice). But the really awesome (and harder to do) thing is an album that consists of great songs that compellingly establish a mood. Try an experiment with me: put on The Soft Bulletin. Now, try being unhappy. You can’t do it, can you? Or, if you can, perhaps you have some sort of brain disorder that makes you hate joy. As I write this, I am listening to The Soft Bulletin after a particularly frustrating morning dealing with what passes for a judicial system here in Los Angeles (a judiciary that can acquit O.J. Simpson is capable of anything) and believe you me, when I sat down at this here computer, I was fuming. Fucking furious. So I cranked up my favorite Flaming Lips album. I’m three tracks in (“The Spark that Bled”) and the anger is just melting away. So long, anger.
But it’s not just that The Soft Bulletin is a shiny, happy album – it’s not, really. It’s kinda death-obsessed, in an interesting sort of way. But the music is incredible, from the crashing drums and twinkling bells to the rich piano tones of “Waitin’ for a Superman” and “The Gash” t0 Wayne Coyne’s warbly-ass voice. After seeing the Lips in concert last week, my fiance pointed out that Coyne isn’t a great singer, but he just goes for it and his voice fits each song in just the right way.
Which gets me to the next reason you should love The Soft Bulletin and the Flaming Lips in general: they’re one of the most honest bands in the world. Under Coyne’s oddball direction, they strive to give their audience an experience that transcends the standard rock concert thing. And they mean every fucking thing that they do, heedless of whether or not they might fail. Truly, as the documentary’s title states, they are fearless freaks. The Flaming Lips album that best exemplifies that awesome experience is The Soft Bulletin. This album makes me want to drive my car out to the middle of nowhere, park in a field, and lay on the hood staring at the stars while “What is the Light?” blasts from my shitty, Toyota Corolla factory-issue speakers. Or better speakers. You get the idea.
It is nearly impossible, these days, to make an album that doesn’t sound like something else. There are just too many sounds and they’ve all been recorded. And yeah, you can say The Soft Bulletin owes some debt to the Beatles or something, but I’ve never heard another album that does what The Soft Bulletin does. It’s the senseless act of beauty that trite people are hyping on their bumper stickers and it’s only made better by the fact that you can’t capture its vibe in a catchphrase. You can come close with this t-shirt I got at the Flaming Lips show last week: “I experienced the Flaming Lips in concert and it made me a better human being.” The Soft Bulletin might not make you a better human being, but it will, for fifty minutes or so, make your life fucking awesome.