Yes, the Flaming Lips. When they appeared in the mid ’80s, “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” got college radio time from fans of Butthole Surfers psychedelic stomps, though the Lips spun their own variant with tabs of fairy-tale-sweet surrealism. Years passed and they kept putting out records, which can get burdensome when a band never takes you to heaven. Late 1994 amazingly brought a verifiable radio hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” that didn’t turn into anything more because they were still just knocking on the door. Years passed again; more records. Then in April of this year Flaming Lips were proclaimed the stars of the Bowlie weekender, an English rock gathering Belle and Sebastian organized. Word spread about their new album, The Soft Bulletin, in a way that word had never spread about a new Lips album. And advance copies of it were put on. Lo, heaven had finally decided it couldn’t wait.
Out this week, Soft Bulletin is a fancifully orchestrated, lightly rocking song-suite about the contingencies of fate, told in parables by a semi-dazed narrator. Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has said that “Waitin’ for a Superman” (who it seems can’t carry the weight) and “Race for the Prize” (scientists consumed searching for a cure) were inspired by his father’s cancer. Drummer Steven Drozd supposedly did have a spider bite lead to the near-amputation of his arm and bassist Michael Ivins supposedly was involved in a bizarre hit-and-run accident, just as it says in “The Spiderbite Song.” An album note explains that “What Is the Light?” involves “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.”
Coyne’s tales are dizzying be cause they refuse to distinguish natural and supernatural, magic and mortality. The music, grungeless and fucking no pigs, with a couple of tracks remixed by R. Kelly engineer Peter Mokran (ironically, he adds guitar), plays a similar game with musical genre and studio trickery. It’s all incredibly spotlit, instruments separated far apart so the effects can thwickle and the strings sweep in an updating of Pet Sounds helped by 30 years of tech. “The Spark That Bled” has four parts: a symphonic opening corresponds to the singer realizing he’s been lobotomized by society and religion; a blaxploitation/pomp-rock surge supports his declaration of independence; a hootenanny rave-up ushers in a fantasy of his rebellious stance becoming trendy; then the orchestra returns to tell him no dice. Number after number unveils such full-scale drama, as Coyne’s sketchy squeak of a voice wanders on. The Lips may have been inspired by the easy-listening craze, but the seeker’s quality within their music tugs against that style’s instinctive cheapening of sentiment.
Where did this marvelous album come from? A skim through the bulky back catalogue (helped by a 1984–1990 compilation Restless released last year), shows that Coyne has always loved sonic epics and lyrics about death, God, and the earth’s squishy creatures. Yet even when the caliber of musicians around him improved, he wasn’t that inventive a rocker, just weird enough to earn the admiration of those who mistake principled loudness for something grander than noise pollution. His hit and a near hit, 1995’s ‘Days,” played up his real forte: whimsicality approached with a craftsman’s con science. So the after-Kurt withdrawal from punk by much of the indie world—symbolized for the Lips by the abdication of screech specialist Ronald Jones—has only liberated him.
Coyne believes the breakthrough to be 1997’s Zaireeka, which must be heard played
simultaneously on four stereos. (He’d have to be four geniuses for me to upend that much furniture. The stereo mixes I’ve heard of a few cuts are forced by the format into stasis—single emotions preserved in amber, or just novelties.) His sonic machinations also included tours where Flaming Lips mixes were broadcast on dozens of onstage boom boxes or offstage car systems; a “Headphones Concert” is his newest scheme. I say the key was his association with Mercury Rev, whose leader, Jonathan Donahue, played on two early ’90s Lips albums and whose former bassist Dave Fridmann has produced all but one of their ’90s works, as well as Rev’s own post-postpunk triumph, last year’s Deserter’s Songs.
Soft Bulletin was done in the same upstate New York studio; the two CDs share a determination to innovate on a par with electronica, lounge, and all the other decadanse, but balance that with rock’s aura of commitment. And because they lean real forces against each other, both are album albums, weightier when heard as a whole. Rockers often have trouble now hitting listeners over the head without looking stupid; this approach represents a soft bulletin. A worm, Coyne might say, if he were whipping up a song. One of those high-voiced spiritual cynics mid-America constantly coughs up (Built To Spill, Ass Ponys, Meat Puppets, Will Oldham), still based out of Oklahoma City, he’s spent more than most bands’ lifetimes wandering gently to ward the sun.