Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
‘The Soft Bulletin’ At 25: Why The Flaming Lips’ Masterpiece Still Matters
Warner Records
In Depth

‘The Soft Bulletin’ At 25: Why The Flaming Lips’ Masterpiece Still Matters

An album born of grief and a creative reinvention, ‘The Soft Bulletin’ turned The Flaming Lips into ‘the band that will always be’.

Back

The Flaming Lips were 14 years, eight albums and one solitary hit into their career by the time they began to pull The Soft Bulletin together. Their previous album, Zaireeka, had been virtually unplayable – thanks to the band’s decision to spread it across four CDs designed to be listened to simultaneously – and yet, seemingly against the odds, the group came out with a heart-on-sleeve masterpiece that quickly became tagged “the Pet Sounds of the 90s”.

Here’s how it all happened, and why The Soft Bulletin remains a landmark album for The Flaming Lips.

Listen to ‘The Soft Bulletin’ here.

The backstory: “I wanted to be normal”

Speaking to this author, for an interview published in Record Collector magazine in 2020, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne admitted that The Soft Bulletin marked a watershed moment for the group. “Previous to that, I think I would have believed myself to be a weirdo: ‘No one’s like me. I’m a champion of the freaks. Fuck normal.’ And I think I was just immature,” he said. “By time we started to do The Soft Bulletin, I wanted to be normal.”

Improbably, The Flaming Lips’ most accessible album to date came out of a project that almost defied attempts to hear it: Zaireeka, whose songs were constructed in such a way that a listener needed four stereos to be able to sync each of its discs together if they hoped to hear the record as the group intended. Yet from the experimental recording process that spawned that album there also came another batch of tunes standing in “absolutely simple and beautiful” contrast to the “insanely wacky” material that was being constructed for Zaireeka.

“By the time we’re done with Zaireeka, we have a good pile of things that don’t work in that format,” Coyne explained to Record Collector. “And that started to become The Soft Bulletin… Those records are so blended together. And if you were there, you would see how.”

The recording: “We’re really in an area now where anything is possible”

Recording The Soft Bulletin in producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios, The Flaming Lips alternated slots with indie-psych outfit Mercury Rev, led by former Lips bandmate Jonathan Donahue. While that group’s Deserter’s Songs would soon see the Buffalo outfit level-up in a similar way to the Lips, Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd began to develop their band into “another version of ourselves that we like”.

Aiding this was a rapidly evolving Drozd, who was now as comfortable hammering out thunderous, John Bonham-like percussion as he was teasing delicate synth strings from a Mellotron. “We didn’t even know how much of a master musician he was at first,” Coyne told Record Collector, recalling the time when Drozd joined the group, in 1991. “It was only once we started to make Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin that we were like, Oh, my gosh, we’re really in an area now where anything is possible.

“I think that’s why Steven and I work so well together,” he continued. “I’m working from a purely expression, aesthetic, emotional level, and he’s working with all the faculties of how music can be expressive and emotional. And we can shape that into something that can be emotional music, complex music, beautiful music and easy to listen to.”

The themes: “I wanted to be able to talk to people whose fathers had died”

Noting that, despite subsequent line-up changes, “The version of The Flaming Lips that made Zaireeka, The Soft Bulletin and [The Soft Bulletin’s follow-up] Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots… feels more like the band that will always be,” Coyne explained how personal challenges and a re-evaluation of the subject matter the group could sing about shaped the onetime outsiders into mainstream contenders.

Coyne, Drozd and producer Fridmann were all grappling with bereavement when they recorded The Soft Bulletin: Coyne’s father and Fridmann’s sister had both recently died, while Drozd’s family had long been beset by “so much tragedy and death” that music had become his way of “bridging that dark gap”.

“I’m already in this other zone,” Coyne said of his own emotional wellbeing during the Soft Bulletin sessions. “I kind of feel like I went into another dimension where the rest of the world was… We can’t just be singing about giraffes flying on UFOs all the time… I wanted to be able to talk to people whose fathers had died and know what happened. How did they deal with it?”

The songs: “People are just saying, ‘We are here and we are in this thing together’”

Out of this desire came many of the best Flaming Lips songs to date, including The Soft Bulletin’s opening song, Race For The Prize, in which two scientists – “just humans with wives and children” – seek to outrun time in the quest for “the cure of all mankind”. Setting woozy synth strings against Drozd’s metronomic drumming, and with Coyne singing in his fragile falsetto, The Flaming Lips struck up a tension between the urgency of the moment and the fragility of humanity which underpins much of the album.

The heaviosity of their new subject matter is further underscored in A Spoonful Weighs A Ton, Coyne singing of the everyday help that can lighten the load of those who receive it. “Spoonful has to be, not the day of the funeral, but the day my dad died, when all these people got together to bring us food and stuff,” Coyne told music critic Jim DeRogatis for his Flaming Lips biography, Staring At Sound. “It is such a little thing to do, but the meaning is huge. People are just saying, ‘We are here and we are in this thing together.’”

With more stereo-smashing drumming punching through mournful synths and gentle flute, A Spoonful Weighs A Ton also allows for an optimism that courses through The Soft Bulletin. “I stood up and I said, ‘Yeah!’” Coyne sings on The Spark That Bled – his reaction to receiving a blow to the head from “the softest bullet ever shot” – as if acknowledging that he has what it takes to withstand anything life throws at him.

Indeed, whatever their woes, the characters in A Spoonful Weighs A Ton find the strength to lift the sun – an image that recurs in Waitin’ For A Superman, a song whose opening lines, “Is it getting heavy?/Well, I thought it was already as heavy as can be”, came from conversations Coyne had with his brother while their father was dying of cancer. But though not even Superman can shoulder the burden of those working through grief, Coyne, singing amid winding guitar lines and chiming bells, offers a message of hope: “Tell everybody waiting for Superman/That they should try to hold on best they can/He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything.”

With The Spiderbite Song, Coyne was able to find a meeting point between exotic animals and existential crises – even if only by accident. Thinking he was singing of a time when Drozd almost lost his hand to an amputation following an encounter with a venomous arachnid, Coyne would later find out that an intravenous heroin injection had led Drozd’s hand to swell up into what the drummer called “a fuckin’ tennis ball”. With his bandmates’ wellbeing in mind, Coyne also addressed Michael Ivins’ own near-tragedy after a loose tyre, travelling at 40 miles an hour, collided with his car, barely missing the bassist’s windshield as he idled a set of traffic lights. “I was glad that it didn’t destroy you/… ’Cause if it destroyed you/It would destroy me,” Coyne sings.

And yet, it’s our capacity to survive that The Soft Bulletin ultimately celebrates. If A Spoonful Weighs A Ton finds Coyne expressing gratitude for the help of others, on Suddenly Everything Has Changed he acknowledges that there comes a time when those suffering from loss must again take care of their own groceries – not that this marks a return to anything like the way things were. “Putting all the vegetables away/That you bought at the grocery store today,” he sings over wibbly synth and a pacy bassline, “And it goes fast/You think of the past/Suddenly everything has changed.”

“After my father died, I felt like my whole world was different,” Coyne told DeRogatis. “It’s in those times when there isn’t another drama going on – moments of boredom, where your mind isn’t filled up by thinking about a million things, you’re just putting the groceries away – that these devastating changes really hit you and you realise, I really am different now.”

The release: “One of those albums people are going to obsess over for many years to come”

For The Flaming Lips, nothing would ever be the same again after the release of The Soft Bulletin. Having joined Mercury Rev on a tour of the UK in April 1999, the group maintained their overseas momentum by issuing their new album there on 17 May, five weeks ahead of the record’s 22 June US release. “Mercury Rev had this great success with Deserter’s Songs, and that sort of blew the doors open and The Flaming Lips slipped in,” Coyne told Record Collector, although it was the majesty of their own music that enabled the group to taste success when The Soft Bulletin became their first album to enter the UK Top 40.

Hinting at the introspective music within, The Soft Bulletin’s artwork featured a Lawrence Schiller portrait of Beat Generation icon Neal Cassady dancing with his own shadow, taken during one of Ken Kesey’s notorious Acid Tests of the late 60s. Further aiding the album’s appeal were two light-touch remixes of Race For The Prize and Waitin’ For A Superman, carried out by R&B producer Peter Mokran (Prince, Diddy, Mary J Blige), who would later state that his role had been “more of a reducer than a producer” for a band who “had so many ideas that I had to rein them in”.

Receiving comparisons to Pink Floyd’s similarly questing The Dark Side Of The Moon and The Beach Boys’ heartrendingly vulnerable Pet Sounds, The Soft Bulletin was greeted as the perfect soundtrack to the end-of-days anxieties that swirled as a new millennium approached. Awarding the album a near-unheard-of perfect score of 10.0, Pitchfork made an early claim for its place as record of the year, declaring, “This is one of those albums people are going to obsess over for many years to come.”

The legacy: “With ‘The Soft Bulletin’ we joined the ranks of humanity”

Reflecting on the album almost 25 years on from its release, Wayne Coyne told Record Collector, “With The Soft Bulletin we just joined the ranks of humanity and said, ‘It’s fun to think you’re crazy, it’s fun to think you’re radical. But when you’re dealing with the death of people in your family, all that other stuff really doesn’t compare to being able to really understand when those sorts of things are happening to you.”

Touring the album with a theatrical live show that was as much an overhaul of the Lips’ concert experience as The Soft Bulletin had been of their in-studio working practises, the group created a nightly communal experience for fans while also celebrating a landmark moment of their own.

“We were literally throwing confetti and balloons, knowing this is the dorkiest shit ever, but we like it and we don’t really care if anybody else likes it,” Coyne asserted. “It’s a time that can only happen to you once.”

And yet, a quarter of a century on from its release, The Soft Bulletin continues to speak to anyone seeking comfort. “A lot of music appeals to people that have egos, but I think The Soft Bulletin gently calls to those people who don’t,” Coyne told Record Collector.

“If people were to ask me what The Soft Bulletin is about, I’d be like, ‘I really I don’t know. We’re just making music.’ But this thing is happening – we’re going through this thing, even though we’re not really writing songs about it. And if you’ve been in the same situation, if you’ve experienced the same type of things that we have, we’ll both know it. And that’s the greatest compliment that music can get.”

Find out which Flaming Lips release ranks among our best 2000s albums.

More Like This

‘Panama’: The Story Behind Van Halen’s Classic Car Song
In Depth

‘Panama’: The Story Behind Van Halen’s Classic Car Song

Always popular, if sometimes lyrically misunderstood, Panama is a rip-roaring rocker that remains one Van Halen’s greatest songs.

‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’: How Van Halen’s Ninth Album Battled The Censors
In Depth

‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’: How Van Halen’s Ninth Album Battled The Censors

Van Halen were up against changing trends and government attacks, yet they prevailed with the ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ album.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up