It is a time of personal misery and darkness. I’d sold the house I’d worked so hard to afford and had struggled to find a new place, so I was stuck back at my parents and holed up in their tiny box room with those few of my worldly goods that I could not live without. My relatively sizeable CD collection was limited to my 100 favourites, my iMac was on top of a chest of draws, which in turn was on top of a blanket box, I had to limit myself to a dozen books, the TV was on top of the VCR, which was on top of the airing cupboard and could only be viewed if I stood in the corner, wedged between my stereo and the window ledge. I loved my parents, but having experienced glorious independence and freedom, having to move back in with them and their ever growing menagerie of cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs and birds, was making me ever more depressed. The search for a new house was getting more and more frantic as property prices sky-rocketed, the longer it took to find a place and get an offer accepted, the more difficult and expensive it became. My friends had all started to settle down with their significant others and had gained fancy job titles and salaries that were far beyond my wildest dreams. I was in my early twenties, single, I hated my job, what little money I earned was going towards the purchase of my new house and I was living at my parents, with my chances of escape narrowing by the day.
Then one day, after having been outbid on yet another dilapidated two bedroom shed, I was pretty much at my lowest ebb. The only thing I knew would raise my spirits was a random compulsive purchase (house prices be damned), so I wandered across town to Record Collector and browsed the racks. Ten minutes later I was walking back to my parents, with The Soft Bulletin in my hand and kicking myself because the batteries in my portable CD player had just died.
When I eventually got back ‘home’ after a long tune-free trudge through an unforecast torrential downpour, I put the CD into my stereo, closed the bedroom curtains and lay on my back staring at the box-room ceiling.
“1, 2, 1…”
It’s almost impossible to describe what it was like hearing the intro to “Race For The Prize” for the first time, the Zeppelinesque drums and soaring strings would have laid me flat on my back, were I not here already. I can’t recall any music lifting me so high at a time I was so low.
This healing power wasn’t just restricted to the opening track either. Song after song The Soft Bulletin just kept unselfishly offering more and more of itself, all in a concerted effort to put a smile on my face.
As I lay there grinning like an idiot because of this musical gift, I the themes of The Soft Bulletin swam around my head. This is an album of death, mortality and loss. So how come it’s so bloody uplifting? In the post-OK Computer musical landscape, there had been many bands trying to match Radiohead’s high water mark for ambition and scope, but none had really succeeded. The Soft Bulletin not only matched it, but went on to totally exceed it, somehow managing to combine mortality, despair, optimism and some sort of undeniable universal truth in a stardust swirl of distinctly cosmic americana. Where Radiohead’s magnum opus had left everyone feeling miserable and paranoid as hell, The Flaming Lips had managed to tackle subjects of a similarly downbeat nature in a manner which left their audience feeling positive and empowered. Songs like “The Gash”, “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton” and “Waitin’ For A Superman” tackle utterly miserable subjects, but that doesn’t stop you singing along and grinning like an idiot as you do so. Sure Wayne Coyne is not the world’s most sophisticated vocalist, but he makes the best of what he’s got and his limitations actually make what he’s singing more believable. He represents us, he’s the everyman, but he’s determined to make us all feel better no matter how negative we are feeling.
After they have captured your heart, you allow The Flaming Lips to take a few liberties, like the fact that the version of the album originally sold in the UK omits the splendid and highly personal “Spiderbite Song” and includes two remixes of tracks that didn’t need remixing. Were this any other band, I’d scoff and hit the skip button, but I don’t, because it’s The Flaming Lips and to find fault in a musical gift like this would be ungracious and against the spirit of which this album was offered.
As I lay there in the box room, staring up at the ceiling and having listened to the album half a dozen times in a row and now singing along to “Buggin'” for the fifth time, I realised that a weight had been lifted. If a band I had previously been ignorant of could effect me in such a positive way, then just about anything was possible.
It’s fourteen years down the road. I’m in my late 30s, and although my career had been stuck in neutral until the previous summer, I have a long-term partner with whom I hope to start a family, a two bedroom house in a great area which is going on the market in the New Year, a much-expanded music collection and a whole host of responsibilities.
Today though, I have received news, great news, news that is going to change things for me and my other half. Today, I have been promoted. Promoted to a grade that when I had mentioned aspiring to it to a senior manager several years ago, they had laughed in my face.
Today is a day of victory and moving on with life.
So what to listen to on the iPod on the way home? Ah yes, The Soft Bulletin, still a mind-bindingly great album, and one I picked up in much-expanded fancy-pants 5.1 surround sound a few years back. Okay, so I’ve never took advantage of the 5.1 listening experience due to the lack of equipment, but the upgraded stereo mixes make the album sound phenomenal, and I get the album in its international version, so I get the great “Spiderbite Song” and the remixes are dispensed with. The only downside is that I actually preferred the remix version of “Buggin'”, but that doesn’t bother me. Today of all days is about celebration and there are few albums that continue to make me smile as much The Soft Bulletin.
17 and a half years after its initial release, The Soft Bulletin remains the pinnacle of The Flaming Lips career. True, they enjoyed great success with 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and continued to be heralded for their sonic adventurousness, but for me, the last decade or so has seen them go too self-consciously weird for me to find much enjoyment in their music. The reason I fell in love with music of The Flaming Lips from the early 90s to about 2005 was its ability to balance ambition with accessibility and The Soft Bulletin was the perfect synthesis of that and today, I want to celebrate my success by listening to one of my all time favourite albums and one which continues to delight me and make me feel good regardless of how many times I have listened to it.