For many people around my age, the mid and late '90s seemed like a total black hole for good new music, especially on the radio. Nearly everything new was commercial and derivative, polluted by boy bands and rap rock. Sure there were unquestioned landmark albums and phenomenal bands during that era (Radiohead's OK Computer, Beck's Mutations, to name couple personal favorites), and with hindsight, I've discovered there was even more great music to like if you dug beneath the surface.
The Flaming Lips album The Soft Bulletin was one of those albums that became incredibly personal to me throughout my college years, and is still one of my all-time favorites that I frequently listen to.
The Soft Bulletin came completely out of left field for me and many other fans. By 1999, a lot of people had written-off The Flaming Lips. The band hadn't had a radio hit since 1993's "She Don't Use Jelly" and the Oklahoma group's followups did not yield anything close to that crossover success. It wasn't the first time people had written off the band: Everyone was pretty surprised by "Jelly'"s ubiquitous success, especially since the band had been toiling in indie rock obscurity since the early '80s.
So when The Flaming Lips released The Soft Bulletin in 1999 (May 17 in UK, June 22 in US), it was a total surprise. It didn't sound much like the band's previous work, which had always towed that line between noisy psych-rock, prog and some poppier alternative rock of the '90s. It also didn't sound like most of the music out there at the time.
Leading up to the record, the Lips conducted what are now referred to as the "boombox experiments" and "parking lot experiments." As the now well-documented lore says, the band had its fans gather in a parking lot, handed out cassette tapes of music composed by the group, and instructed people to play them in their cars stereos at the same time, creating a thick cacophony of sounds and music. This in turn led to their four-disc album Zaireeka, which was to be played on four different stereos, all at the same time.
It's clear now that these experiments in sound, complex arrangements and studio manipulations were employed during the recording of The Soft Bulletin. The songs were filled with dense orchestration by multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd and inspired production from longtime-collaborator Dave Fridmann. The Soft Bulletin augmented grooving bass lines and guitars with drum machines, synthesized string parts and lots of electronic studio experimentation. With songs like "What Is The Light?" and "The Gash," it was an epic album start to finish.
But it was also their most personal. Disguised under celebratory choruses, catchy melodies, lush harmonies and Wayne Coyne's typical oddball lyrics, was this darker, much more introspective and existential outlook. In the earnest "The Spiderbite Song," Coyne sings about losing his friends and family (inspired by Drozd almost losing his arm due to what he claimed was a spiderbite, but was actually due to his ongoing drug use. It was also about bassist Michael Ivins's car crash). Coyne also sang about his father's death in songs like "Waiting for Superman" and "Suddenly Everything Has Changed."
It was this mixture of elements that has allowed this album to endure the last ten years and become one of great albums of the '90s.