Best Of '99: Flaming Lips Broadcast Emotional, Sonic Depth With Soft Bulletin

New album from psychedelic rockers ranges from neoclassical pop-opera to drum & bass-style percussion.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Tuesday, June 22.]

The Flaming Lips have spent the better part of the past decade and a

half spiking their pop confections with the oddest of sonic ingredients.

But you would be wrong if you thought they'd reached their trippy peak

with 1997's Zaireeka -- four CDs of aural effects meant to be

played simultaneously.

For the Oklahoma City trio, that was just the beginning.

The Lips retreated into an upstate New York recording studio for nearly

two years and emerged with The Soft Bulletin, released Tuesday

(June 22). It's a project that was inspired by the Zaireeka sessions,

Lips leader Wayne Coyne said.

"When we started making Zaireeka, we knew we would make two

records at the same time," Coyne explained recently. "Zaireeka was,

in theory, going to make us aware of what our next record would be. If

given enough freedom to do whatever, then eventually you go as far as you

can go. [For the next record,] we would be pulling back to a more realistic

song structure."

Instead of moving from the esoteric tones of Zaireeka to a more

traditional sound, Coyne and his bandmates — bassist Michael Ivins

and drummer Steven Drozd — explored the furthest reaches of the

offbeat on such songs as the album's first single, "Buggin' "

(RealAudio

excerpt), a ditty about bugs that buzzes on a bed of angelic

vocals and sugary violins.

The trio's endless experimentation permeates all 14 selections on The

Soft Bulletin — from the melting strings of the opener, "Race

for the Prize," to the monstrous, skittering drum & bass beats and pistonlike

drum machines that break in halfway through the otherwise fragile ballad

"A Spoonful Weighs a Ton."

Chicago producer Peter Mokran, best known for his work with such R&B

artists as Michael Jackson, The Artist (when he performed as Prince) and

R. Kelly, remixed several songs on the album, including "Race for the

Prize" and "Waiting for a Superman" (RealAudio

excerpt).

While The Soft Bulletin continues the Lips' experimental push, it

also reveals a more emotionally accessible side of the band. For a group

that has spent nearly two decades honing its psychedelic-pop sound on the

fringes, Coyne said that working with the mainstream Mokran to find a

"radio-friendly" sound was perhaps the edgiest thing it could have done.

Mokran, 30, who'd never heard the Flaming Lips before he began working

with them, said it was a different experience from most of the projects

he undertakes. "Initially, it was set up as an experiment, a 'let's see

what happens' thing," he recalled. "But it went really well."

Since even the rough tracks for the album were overstuffed with sound,

Mokran said he had to work more as a reducer than a producer. "They're a

band that's never really short on ideas," Mokran said, laughing. "The

main part of my gig was to reel it all in and determine where the song

lived."

The Lips have hovered just outside the mainstream since their formation

in 1983 in Oklahoma City. Originally comprising Coyne, his brother,

vocalist Mark, and bassist Ivins, the group has explored a fractured world

of acid-drenched dream-pop beginning with its self-titled, self-released

1985 debut album. Following Mark Coyne's departure that year, Wayne Coyne

took over the band for 1986's Hear It Is and has led the Lips ever

since.

In addition to packing the album's songs with dramatic strings arrangements

and exploding drum sounds, the often-enigmatic Wayne Coyne dropped the

lyrical puzzles of such quixotic Lips songs as 1993's unexpected hit,

"She Don't Use Jelly" (RealAudio

excerpt), in favor of more personal messages.

"I wanted people to realize that we're really trying to explore new

ideas, even if it's to just analyze yourself further, to use yourself as

your own victim," Coyne said of such emotionally charged songs on The

Soft Bulletin as "Waiting for a Superman" and the slowly unfolding

ballad "What Is the Light?"

"The idea of exploration," he noted, "is something people have done on

records like this for years, but it's not until you do it yourself and

tell your own story that you understand."

In the whimsical "The Spiderbite Song," Coyne explores issues raised by

Drozd's nearly fatal encounter with an arachnid in 1996 and Ivins' equally

life-threatening injury that same year. "I was glad that it didn't destroy

you/ How sad that would be/ 'Cause if it destroyed you, it would destroy

me," Coyne sings.

He delves further in two of the new album's most dramatic songs, the

frantic opener "Race for the Prize" and the majestic piano-and-bass-drum

ballad "Waiting for a Superman," both of which deal with the death of

Coyne's father from cancer last year. "Is it gettin' heavy?" Coyne wonders

in the latter song's chorus. "Well, I thought it was already as heavy as

can be."

Coyne said he learned through his struggle with loss that love is too

valuable not to feel it even for a second, even as he acknowledges that

it brings pain. As he sings in "The Spiderbite Song," "Love is the greatest

thing a heart can know/ But the hole that it leaves in its absence can

make you feel so low."