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Soothing the Rage

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The Flaming Lips

Hegemony: The Flaming Lips have the whole world in their hands.

The Flaming Lips' 'Soft Bulletin' advises acceptance of the inevitable

By Gina Arnold

ONCE UPON a time, a band called the Flaming Lips drove for three days straight from Oklahoma City to San Francisco to play its first out-of-town gig ever at a club on Haight Street, and when it was over, they drove for three straight days to get home.

I was at that gig, and I remember disliking the band intensely. I thought the Flaming Lips were too hippiesh, too psychedelic, too bombastic: four long-haired bumpkins who had somehow mixed up their Led Zeppelin records with their Hüsker Dü albums. I distinctly recall that they played Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" for an encore, and I hated it.

Sixteen years have passed since that day, and I have long since realized that either I was wrong or the Flaming Lips are a testament to the fact that given enough time and enough patience, bands really do get better--get brilliant, as a matter of fact. As far back as 1991, when the Flaming Lips released Transmission From the Satellite Heart, I knew that both things were true, anyway. I was finally digging their semipsychedelic, ultrasurrealistic loud, hard guitar scene.

Since then, the band has appeared on Beverly Hills, 90210, been decried by Beavis and Butt-head and, finally, become artier than ever, transmogrifying from a psychedelic jam band into a thoughtful, tuneful, original blend of experimental and basic rock elements. They are in full command of both chops and thoughts, which may be why, ever since Elvis Costello left the Warner Bros. roster, the Flaming Lips have held the place at that label usually reserved for pure unadulterated class.

They are a band beloved of critics, label executives and anyone else who meets, sees or hears them, although despite a minor hit in 1992 with the song "She Don't Use Jelly," the ranks of their admirers are not exactly increasing by the day.

For once, however, you can't quite blame the label for the Lips' never-ending obscurity. The band's last recording, Zaireeka, was a four-CD set that could only be properly heard by playing all four CDs simultaneously. And the Flaming Lips' concerts often take place in parking lots and on freeway onramps, where up to 80 cars are made to coordinate portions of tapes blaring out of their windows.

These kinds of art projects necessarily make the Lips' audience somewhat select--limited to those who are willing to tramp through dank parking structures, don headphones for hours, even in some cases make the trek to the band's hometown of Oklahoma City to participate.

Much as one respects the Lips for such bold and creative gestures, it's been easy in the meantime to forget that they are also just a really great rock band, pure and simple. One of the greatest. The Soft Bulletin, the band's first "normal" recording in four years, proves it. Not to beat around the bush: this is an opus on the level of Highway 66 Revisited and Astral Weeks. The Flaming Lips have created the last great rock record of the decade.

Of course one does not say that lightly. But The Soft Bulletin, a seamless orchestral piece with a huge rock bottom overlaid with achingly sweet tunes and anthems, really merits that distinction. The album is an intense, moving and melodic piece of work--and a little bit more than that as well.

The Flaming Lips, who for the past 16 years have lived and worked out of their own little universe in Oklahoma City, have always made the farthest thing from "statement rock" that can be imagined. And yet somehow, this highly personal, extremely distinctive band has come up with an album that inadvertently answers some of life's universal questions.

LIKE MANY great records, this one has a theme. At first I thought it was nuclear holocaust. The album begins with "Race for the Prize," in which "two scientists are racing for the good of all mankind ... locked in a heated battle for the cure that is the prize." The song goes on to describe their fight as being right to the death. The second song, "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," even more explicitly talks about science either saving or destroying the world.

Although the nuclear theory is a nice one, from that point on, The Soft Bulletin turns very personal. In fact, I believe the record is really about cancer. Singer and songwriter Wayne Coyne is seemingly writing about the entire gamut of emotions that strike a person when a loved one contracts the disease--from the hopes that science raises to the final acceptance of cancer's destructiveness. Viewed from that perspective, the album, which is already pretty poignant, takes on the weight of the world.

In a way, cancer is the perfect subject for Coyne, who has long been obsessed with death. (The band's publishing arm is called Lovely Sorts of Death, and the hand-screened posters Coyne makes--like the one with the image of an exploding skull I have on my office wall--usually depict highly stylized acts of violence.)

But Coyne has also always had a penchant for musical uplift. "Superheroes" was a song about a person getting the strength to lift a car off a baby. "Bad Days" was one of the more hope-inspiring songs around, and even at the height of the band's more cacophonous, guitar-band incarnation, it always covered Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" for its encore.

But now, Coyne and mates (bassist Michael Ivey and drummer Steven Drozd) have gone beyond mere goodwill and become positively spiritual. The Soft Bulletin strangely recalls Dylan Thomas' famous poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," but whereas Thomas pleaded with his dying father to "rage, rage, against the dying of the light," Coyne has achieved an even higher level of philosophical evolution.

Rather than rage, this music actually soothes. It is an argument for mercy, acceptance and hope for the future, all made right in the teeth of death by, as he calls it on "The Spark That Bled," "the softest bullet ever shot."

Happily, The Soft Bulletin has a lighter side and could be interpreted--as the band seems to intend--as just a kind of philosophical treatise on the power of love. The CD jacket copy describes "Suddenly Everything Has Changed" as being about "death anxiety caused by moments of boredom." "Buggin" is a more whimsical number about bugs, and "What Is the Light" is about the chemistry of love.

SEEN IN THE larger context, however, these songs take on more ominous proportions. Other numbers are more explicitly about physical danger. On "The Spiderbite Song," for example, Coyne tries to imagine a world without his beloved and can't: "If it destroyed you, it would destroy me."

Then in "The Gash," Coyne makes a more direct allusion to the battle that's being waged for life. "I feel like the real reason that you're quitting is that you're admitting that you've lost the will to battle on," he wails to the stricken one. But by "Feeling Yourself Disintegrating," he has come to the final stage of mourning, that is, acceptance: "Love in our life is too valuable to feel for a second without it. But life without death is just impossible."

Finally, "Waiting for a Superman" is an affirmation of God's existence, a call for hope. "Tell everybody waiting for a superman that they should try to hold on as best they can," Coyne sings. "He hasn't dropped them or forgot them or anything. It's just too heavy for a superman to lift." It's a song that wouldn't be improper to play at a wedding or a funeral, and how many songs can you say that about?

The album also contains several musical interludes of great intensity and loveliness, like "Sleeping on the Roof" and "The Observer," which involves the steady beat of a human heart. There are also two reprises, usually a filler tactic but entirely justified here.

Another striking thing about this record is the emotional nakedness on display. Bands often use music to talk about so many self-aggrandizing emotions--about politics, depression, frustration, angst. But I can't remember a record that is as emotionally affecting as this one in quite such a selfless way. Perhaps because the Flaming Lips focus on love rather than sex, or because they don't turn away from the reality of death.

In my experience, most people who love or perform loud rock & roll are so solipsistic that the very idea of death, the snuffing out of their ego, is like a personal affront. Coyne's conclusion--that life without death is impossible, so we must accept it as such and move on--is all the more wonderful because it comes from such an unexpected source. The Soft Bulletin doesn't just invite listeners not to lose hope--it actually instills hope as it spins.

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From the July 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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