The Soft Bulletin

Their hour has come round at last. The Flaming Lips could've been forgiven for feeling usurped when their sister ship Mercury Rev steamed away with the garlands for Deserter's Songs last December, but in truth, both collectives are in competition with no-one but themselves and the gods.

Their hour has come round at last. The Flaming Lips could've been forgiven for feeling usurped when their sister ship Mercury Rev steamed away with the garlands for Deserter's Songs last December, but in truth, both collectives are in competition with no-one but themselves and the gods.

Besides, this tenth album is as quantum a leap from The Lips' last 'orthodox' (in so much as the Oklahoma trio do anything by the book) outing Clouds Taste Metallic as the Rev opus was from See You On The Other Side. The two bands might pilot parallel trajectories, share a producer (the destined-to-be-very-expensive David Fridmann), and possess singers who inhale the same helium as Neil Young, but they also effect approaches to scoring, composition and recording that make their contemporaries sound like pond life. Great minds think aloud.

Although Clouds was undoubtedly the album of 1995, converting Brian Wilson's heavenly choirs into a mercurial concerto for guitar, bass, voice and drums (not to mention lyrics worthy of the most deep-phat-fried Syd Barrett), this one explores an even more far flung galaxy, one where sentiments like, "You Can't Do That In A Studio!" are rendered laughably obsolete.

Remember the future? The atmosphere in The Soft Bulletin is an alloy of nostalgia and science fiction, the feeling one gets when watching 1950s films about life in the year 2000. See, Coyne is so far ahead of the pack, even the bravest trailblazers of cosmic American music can't see his ass for stardust: the guy is working from a philosophy which has more in common with some twisted branch of sonic astrophysics than the linear thinking exhibited by his peers. If so many rock 'n' rollers take latter-day cowboys 'n' indians as their icons, The Lips are rooting for the lab-rats, myopic little guys with microscopes and white coats. Indeed, this space programme kicks off with a tale of "Two scientists racing for the good of all mankind/Both of them side by side/So determined" ('Race For The Prize').

Elsewhere, on rocket symphonies like 'The Spark That Bled', 'Waitin' For A Superman' and 'The Gash', the band sound like they've been boning up on Harry Partch, The Beach Boys, Sun Ra, Stockhausen and even Air, and transposing their findings into gloriously melodious four-minute clusters. But don't let the references put you off: this music is no more "difficult" than Marquee Moon, Ladies And Gentlemen . . . or There's A Riot Goin' On.

And if the titles are marginally less out-there than past classics like 'Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World', any casual listener pottering around the kitchen will still be struck dumb by couplets like, "What is the light that you have shining around you/Is it chemically derived?".

Indeed, the trio are fascinated by the almighty epiphanies that can spring from moments of boredom ("Puttin' all the clothes you've washed away/And as you're foldin' up the shirts you hesitate/Then it goes fast/You think of the past/And suddenly everything has changed"), rips in reality that throw a deceptively familiar universe wonderfully out of whack.

These 58-minutes are the culmination of a 17-year career (in the impetuous sense of the word) that has been distinguished by mind-bendingly undervalued records. If this is where music is heading in the next century, count me in. The Soft Bulletin is pop on a De Mille scale, this reviewer's album of the year so far.

 

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