An amazing album by The Flaming Lips. My acquisition of this album warrants a tale...

I was living in Berlin and had only a couple weeks left in that fair city. The other people on my study abroad program were gone on vacation or doing their own thing, and classes were over, so I took to my usual habit of wandering the city alone. I was living with a German friend of mine, and he was gone visiting his ex-girlfriend, so I had his half of the apartment to myself. Prime time for some quiet introspection while wandering the streets.

I took the train from Warschauer Strasse over to Friedrichstrasse and walked in to Dussmann to listen to some music. I wanted to find a violin piece I had heard earlier in the semester at a concert we attended at the concert hall on the Gendarmenmarkt. I found it after much searching, but the version they had in stock sounded like shit, so I went back upstairs to browse in the popular music.

I was flipping through CDs and worked my way around to 'F' and saw what I at first thought was a soundtrack to a 70s film, judging by the cover. I had bought a Flaming Lips single of "She Don't Use Jelly" long ago, and I thought this CD would just be some random silliness. I took a listen and it sounded interesting, a blend of strange drumbeats and bass, backed with strings and guitars that floated in and out between stories sung about scientists and Superman. It sounded like an opera here, Rocky Horror there, bits of Ween to the left, a children's storybook to the right. Cool.

I bought it and walked outside to the German summer to continue my wanderings. I think I got an ice cream and walked around through Mitte for a while. Something about being in Berlin for six months had made me lonely. I got along alright enough with the people in my group, but there was plenty of infighting and strange relationships abounded. I had been involved in a lust triangle (really a square if you get technical...) that turned nasty on a trip to Amsterdam. It was me and another guy on my program (from my school nonetheless) who were chasing after the favors of a rather attractive and sexual girl with a boyfriend back home. We shall call her Salomé. Salomé was off vacationing with her boyfriend as I walked past the Palast der Republik and the Berliner Dom with my bag filled with CD, pens and journal, books, and my few remaining Deutschmarks. We avoided each other now, she giving me the silent treatment after I caught her in bed with Boy #2 in our youth hostel in Amsterdam.

I liked her a lot, mostly because she was one of those women who know how to kiss, who give their whole being to pleasure. It was but a lustful adventure. I had come to Berlin and left behind a girlfriend, the first girl I had been in love with. I hadn't been able to push her out of my mind for months since the last semester ended back in the States, and for most of February I was miserable and pathetic. But by the time I was walking over the Spree that day, she had graduated and I was left with some bizarre emptiness that didn't really come to the surface often.

Friends I made in Berlin were fun to hang out with, but I had made few of them, and I was starting to feel uncomfortable around everyone I knew. It's a strange feeling that persists today: I feel like I'm trapped in an inability to understand anyone but myself -- everyone else is completely unfathomable.

I thought about these things as I wandered through the streets and rode the trains. The quiet I kept that thick afternoon left me calm and aloof. I sat, read, ate, kept to myself. I was going home soon, and then things would be back to normal, I would return to old friends and comforting things. Nevermind that coming home would just bring more of the same detachment.

I walked up the dark stairs to the apartment, sweaty and tired and silent. Frustrated by being alone and about being so aloof and standoffish with every other person I met. I dragged Mathias' headphones over to the bed, turned out the lights, opened the door to the balcony and the evening air. Put in the CD, sprawl out with headphones on. I listened to the whole album and smiled. It's the theme song to my loneliness, or at least one of them. One of those pieces of music I'll always remember, since it came into my life when I needed something.

The Soft Bulletin is a 1999 album by the pop group The Flaming Lips. The group spent three years recording this album, and it definitely shows; it is a magnificent collection of melancholic and experimental but fun pop music. The album was released by Warner Bros. and was produced by The Flaming Lips, Dave Fridmann, and Peter Mokran. It totals fifty eight minutes and twenty eight seconds in length over fourteen tracks.

The Flaming Lips started off as a quirk rock band in the vein of They Might Be Giants or The Presidents of the United States of America, gaining some major exposure in 1993 with their biggest hit to date, She Don't Use Jelly. After that, they released a much more experimental pop album, Clouds Taste Metallic, in 1995, and the extremely unusual and interesting four-disc album Zaireeka in 1996, which was designed to be played simultaneously on four different stereo systems. After that, the group largely vanished for three years as they worked on what I can safely call their masterpiece.

After hearing the more experimental slant of their last two albums, I was concerned that this album would take that to a much higher degree and be difficult to listen to, much like the direction Radiohead has taken with their two most recent albums, Kid A and Amnesiac. Instead, this album is rather accessible, using a melancholic pop approach to create enough initial appeal that you'll give it another few listens... and that's when their genius gets you.

This album is a lot like Revolver by The Beatles in that during the first few listens, you only pick up the catchiness of the music. It isn't until the fourth or fifth listen that you realize that, rather than recycled pop beats, this is groundbreaking stuff. It is what happens when a band has such a clear vision of what they want to do and has the skill to pull it off and still keep it unbelievably listenable, interesting, and catchy. In other words, it's genius.

The genius here is in how the lyrics and music mesh. Very rarely, if ever, have I heard music and lyrics that have meshed together this well; nothing seems out of place anywhere, not an instrument or anything. Notes are missed on occasion, but it is almost as if the music was written to match the limitation of frontman Wayne Coyne's voice. Interestingly enough, even though the lyrics and music together paint a picture, it still remains wildly interpretive. I've talked to others who have felt much differently than I about the various songs on this album.

The album opens with one of the two singles, Race For The Prize (4:09). The lyrics tell the tale of two scientists working day and night to cure a disease, and paints them as heroes in both word and song. The two scientists are competing with one another for the good of mankind, and this is an ode to them and their competition. The reminder within the song of the fact that these men are merely human, with the same human problems that we all have in our daily lives, ties it together. The music drives along with a dominant string section and some nice percussion, giving the song a heroic feel with a twinge of melancholy; a perfect match.

A Spoonful Weighs a Ton (3:32) is about sacrificing everything for something you believe in. The lyrics are somewhat abstract, but the music is notable here, opening with a piano and a flute, eventually dropping down with a heavy drum during the climax of the song.

The third track, The Spark That Bled (5:56), is a wildly interpretive track. I take it as being about the power of an idea; others have taken it to be about physics or religion, among other things. The song opens up extremely mellow, building to a deep horn section throughout several parts of the song. The vocal harmonization in a few places is well done, too; perfect in that it is slightly off kilter with a mellow, checked excitement.

The Spiderbite Song (4:02) is a mellow piano-guided song with, again, wildly interpretive lyrics. The idea and feeling that this song presents to me is how two people are tied together through love through the strangeness of life, but again, this song could be interpreted a lot of ways.

Buggin' (3:16) comes off like an off-kilter 1970's pop song, with lots of nice harmonization on the chorus. The song is driven by a medley of instruments, often breaking down to a piano and nice harmonization, but parts of the song also feature distorted guitar and drums. The song, to me, comes off as a song about confusion about a lot of aspects of life; relationships and a place in the world.

The sixth song, What Is The Light? (4:05), is probably most noticeable by a heavy beat over which the vaguely distorted vocals are draped. The song seems to propose that an idea caused the Big Bang, definitely an interesting idea. The way the song presents the birth of the universe, by a slowly growing horn section, is very nice.

The Observer (4:11) is an appropriately titled instrumental in the middle of the album. It musically creates the idea of someone watching something and gradually becoming more interested and excited in the subject, a feeling I got before knowing the title. The heartbeat-like beats contribute to this greatly, I think.

The eighth song is the other single from this album, and one of my favorite songs of all time. Waitin' for a Superman (4:17) is a wonderful song featuring some excellent drumwork and perhaps my favorite lyrics of all time. The song is about the one weight that is too heavy for Superman to lift, and that is emotional weight. What does Superman do when he is depressed? This song approaches near perfection in my book.

Suddenly Everything Has Changed (3:54) is a nice number about how memories can change your entire perspective on the present. The strings in this song are marvelous, accenting the song perfectly in a few key places. The guitarwork, reminding me somehow of George Harrison's guitar work on Abbey Road (actually, this whole song sounds like a missing track from Abbey Road, which is a major compliment), really fill out the track.

The tenth track, The Gash (4:02), drives along madly, reminiscent of some of the better psychedelic rock of the late 1960s. The song lyrically questions a particular person's reasons for quitting something. The somewhat distorted harmonized singing adds greatly to the psychedelic effect of this song.

Feeling Yourself Disintegrate (5:17) is a song about love and death and how they are the two real absolutes in human life. It's much more mellow than the previous track, which may be the most uptempo track on the album. This song features some very interesting instrumentation which, to be honest, I am unsure of which instruments produced it.

Sleeping on the Roof (3:09) is an instrumental mostly done on an electric organ of some sort. It's interesting, but surrounded by a bevy of excellent songs, it comes off as being the weakest track on the disc.

The album closes with reprisals of the two singles. Race For The Prize (4:18) differs greatly from the opener in that it focuses very heavily on the percussion and almost entirely removes the string section except for the places where there is singing; this is an interesting take, but I prefer the first one. Waitin' For A Superman (4:19) closes out the album with a version very similarly to the earlier one. The recording sounds a little bit distorted and there are a few different instrumental bits (nothing of significance), but to my ears they are equally worthy versions.

This album really is fantastic from beginning to end. Except for Sleeping on the Roof, there isn't a weak track to be found. It's a truly enjoyable, experimental, and thought provoking pop-rock album, one that deserves much more recognition than it has received. Other excellent albums in the same vein would include Clouds Taste Metallic by The Flaming Lips and perhaps OK Computer by Radiohead, even though the two have a lot of differences.

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