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Flaming Lips kill us softly.

Loose Bruce

Flaming Lips douse Springsteen in post-9/11 releases

By Gina Arnold

THE GUYS who came over to clean my carpet the other day were all happy because I had a preview copy of Bruce Springsteen's new one, The Rising. It didn't seem to me that working to the tune of a bunch of songs about Sept. 11 like "Into the Fire," in which a firefighter disappears "up the stairs into the fire," or "You're Missing," about a family who's lost someone in a similar fashion, would be very uplifting. Rock music is filled with such contradictions, and none are so pronounced as the dissonance that exists between Springsteen's feel-good, rock-hard, working-class persona and the true content of his songs and albums.

Most of his songs are depressing critiques of the American condition, and yet he is perceived by his legion of fans as a pithy hero whose musical statements about How Great Life Is belie the futility of capitalist life in these United States. On the one hand, Rosalita, jump a little higher. On the other, we're sitting by the campfire, waiting for the ghost of Tom Joad. Is it free beer night at the frat party or bleeding-heart time at the Pew Trust?

Springsteen ought to have provided solace in the wake of last September's horrifying events, but his work is a must to avoid. Instead, after Sept. 11, there was only one record I could listen to with any degree of comfort, and that was The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips. It's an opus about the ravages of cancer and the sudden incomprehensible nature of death that asks the hard question: why must people suffer so? In the end, the Lips answer by musically conveying a hard-won sense of acceptance, redemption and inner peace.

You wouldn't think that the carefree psychedelic band from Oklahoma (best known for the goofy hit "She Don't Use Jelly") would achieve spiritual satisfaction, but on The Soft Bulletin it certainly does. The Soft Bulletin is about the battle with cancer of the father of singer Wayne Coyne, but many of its points apply to Sept. 11. So, too, does the opening track on their new EP, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which is titled "Fight Test." Coyne sings, "I thought I was smart; I thought I was right; I thought it was better not to fight; I thought there was a virtue in being cool," only to conclude that "to fight is to defend ... if it's not now, then tell me when?" No other release about Sept. 11--including The Rising--really asks that blunt of a question, much less answers it in the positive.

By contrast, The Rising merely confounds personal loss and love with national tragedy in the most ornate and bombastic terms, resurrecting clichéd images full of dread without ever really delving into what it all means. Throughout the record, hell is brewing, the sky is falling and mama's in the kitchen waiting for her man, while outside it's raining blood and thunder. There are a lot of high-flying anthems about faith and strength and courage and love, but nothing that really makes a person feel better--which wouldn't be a problem at all if the record hadn't set itself up as some kind of rock & roll book of common prayer.

The Flaming Lips, who don't set themselves up as anything, succeed far better at succoring us in our hour of need. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots deals in part with Sept. 11, and also with the sudden death of a young Japanese friend and fan of the band, but it does so obliquely. "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell," for example, is about living in the moment because one never knows what's ahead, while in the title cut, Coyne posits a Japanese superheroine (named for Yoshimi of the band the Boredoms) who takes on a host of Earth-attacking robots and wins when the robots fall in love with her.

According to the band's own notes, the center of the EP is "It's Summertime," in which Coyne tells the grieving sisters of his friend, "It's summertime, and I can understand if you still feel sad ... and though it's hard to see it's true possibilities / When you look inside, all you'll see is a self-reflected sadness / Look outside, and I know that you'll recognize it's summertime." I find that line a lot more comforting than Springsteen's revival-meeting catchphrase "Come on up for the rising," but maybe that's just me.

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From the August 8-14, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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