Ever the peripheral figures on the music scene, the early Flaming Lips melded acid-induced freakouts with fuzz-pop garage stompers which never concealed their strange, warped and idiosyncratic sense of humour.
With titles such as “Rainin’ Babies”, “Talkin’ ‘Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever)” and “She Don’t Use Jelly”, it’s amazing to think that a major label (Warner Brothers) funded these explorations for such little returns. And lest we forget the Zaireeka project – an album of four separate CDs designed to be played either simultaneously or in infinite random combinations. This would not happen now.
Then, in 1999 The Flaming Lips delivered one of the most listened to albums in my collection: The Soft Bulletin. That year, the album swept all aside to land awards and accolades and earned its reputation as the Pet Sounds of the 1990s. An album where each song overflows with ideas, changes, kitchen sink style instrumentation, yet never loses its focus nor wanders from the strength of the songs at its core.
The album is a gloriously layered, orchestral, sun-drenched slab of pure melody. Joyous yet heartbreaking with Wayne Coyne’s cracked vocal punctuating each track; lending a vulnerability only the Flaming Lips could provide on tracks with such preposterous titles as “What is the Light (An untested hypothesis suggesting that the chemical [in our brains] by which we are able to experience the sensation of being in love is the same chemical that caused the “Big Bang” that was the birth of the accelerating universe)”. No, really. That’s its full title.
I got into the album late as per usual. I knew a few of the songs, had liked what I heard and added it to my “Albums To Buy List” but for some reason had never picked it up whenever I visited a record store (remember those?). Then, a girl I used to know owned it so I asked if I could borrow it. Luckily for me (and unbelievably foolishly of her) she said I could have it as she never listened to it. Since then I have great memories of the album, which always seem to involve driving when the weather is fantastic (not a regular occurrence if you’ve ever visited North West England).
So now, as ever I could have chosen any song from the album. But it’s a sunny day outside today (what is it with this album and sunshine?) and I’m feeling upbeat. So the fatalistic sadness of “Waiting For A Superman” (Peter Mokran mix) hasn’t made my ink hit the paper… or rather the pixels hit the screen. Neither has the melodious yet in turns jarring “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”. And nor is it the leading track and haymaker of a single “Race For The Prize”.
“Buggin'” is probably the most conventional song from the album. Your standard just-over-three-minutes-in-length pop single if ever I heard one – particularly considering the complexity of the majority of the other songs. But this is The Flaming Lips, so it’s no surprise that its subject matter deals with… insects. Bugs. Literally.
No simple moon, spoon, June rhyming couplet love songs to be found here – no siree.
We start, with bugs swarming round – or electronic sounds manipulated to sound like so. Sweet, tinkling pianos entwined with acoustic guitar arpeggios creep and crawl through the simplest of chord progressions while subtle drones of the deep counter swirling buzzes and bustling bleeps. Again, it could only be the Flaming Lips that could engineer aural insects.
Coyne speaks up, crackling and straining to be heard above the sweet din: “All those bugs…” only to be helped out on the following line with a four, possibly five part harmony joyously adding “buzzing around your head” and then BAM!
The thunderous drum sound – a defining feature of The Soft Bulletin throughout and a gift from producer Dave Fridmann – cracks a snare waking up the world to drag it kicking into the next section. Fuzz bass, vocal harmonies, clattering and compressed Bonham-esque drums, harps and guitars take the listener on a rollercoaster ride of a chorus – scrap that, it’s like riding on the bag of a bug (getting into Coyne’s frame of thought is slightly easier than I realised)!
We loop round again, circling the song like a fly circles a room looking for an exit. Verse and chorus follows and spirals and then suddenly we come to rest. But like any bug, this doesn’t last long as those brutal drums thunder us into the middle section, Fender Jazzmasters carrying the listener like gusts of wind.
Spotting the window’s open, the song makes a break for it as synth strings swell, sweet skyscraping falsettos soar and guitars power to the outtro. Steve Drozd batters the skins of his kit one last time leaving us exhausted, exhilarated and extremely satisfied; once again listening to the serenity of the bugs buzzing around our heads.