Put-down for What Was It Anyway?
The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin (1999)
There was obviously a bit of negotiation required at All Music Guide over the evaluation of the Flaming Lips' 1999 opus The Soft Bulletin. Despite being breathlessly summarized by reviewer Jason Ankeny as "the best album of 1999," and "might be the best record of the entire decade," it didn't earn the full 5-star rating, nor did it wrestle the “AMG pick” tick away from 1993's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart. There must have been a dissenting sub-editor there, who wasn't persuaded by Ankeny's rhapsodic review, the rare 10.0 granted by Pitchfork, or the year-end charts of NME and Uncut, both of which placed The Soft Bulletin at the summit. The final year of the millennium wasn't a great year for music, but the AMG subber was right to be guarded. The Soft Bulletin featured too few melodic ideas for a classic, but managed to hide that from many critics by smothering everything with saccharine production trickery. But for a few moments of inspiration, The Soft Bulletin was mutton dressed as lamb.
Think of it this way: We all know it's easier to tell a pretty lady when she's not wearing make-up. When a photo has been severely airbrushed or when a woman is drowning in foundation and blush, there's always cause to be suspicious of the hidden. Naturally fair maidens don't need embellishment, and there's a similar rule with pop music, the best of which retains its prettiness even after it's been stripped bare. Sometimes we enjoy the enhancements viscerally, as with much shoegaze, but as Scott McKeating said of Loveless , if that polish doesn't thrill you then there's got to be something like a melody underneath. If not, you're left with a minger caked in make-up trying to fool you into falling for her. But you're too smart, aren't you, to be duped by "Waitin' for a Superman"? Despite flowery piano-tinkling and dramatic synth-strings, it has a melody as sludgy as the bass drum it's tied to. The stereo-effect-shattering drum fills of “Slow Motion” are great, but they can't hide the badly-sung dirge beneath. Listen to the vocal melody of “What is the Light?” Isolate it from the endlessly shimmering piano, the digital-watch beep, the game-show button alert, and all the other clobber that surrounds it, and you could sing that melody in your sleep.
Well, I could sing it in my sleep, but Wayne Coyne is belting it as hard as he can and it's still barely penetrating the mic. I know you don't have to be able to sing to be a singer; but you have to be able to sing . Did the Flaming Lips scrimp on auto-tune software in favor of more instrumental studio trickery instead? "More make-up cake boss, we’ll need more if we’re gonna hide this fugger." Or were they running the auto-tune off a 486 with less megabytes of RAM than there were candles on Wayne's cake? Listen to this bit at the start of "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton"; the fairytale princess skips through the forest, shedding glistening sparkledust over pink bunnies and golden bricks, singing, "They lifted up the sun/A million came from one/They lifted up the s u-u-un". Except she's no fairyland princess, she's a bearded man caked in make-up with a hand up a nun's skirt! (It's only the live-show hand puppet, thankfully). Listen to "The Gash". It's one of the stranger tracks on the album, thanks to the apocalyptic opening, the bouncy, playful bassline, and combined choruses of freaks both human and zombie. I like it a fair bit, but then comes Coyne's verse, a terribly weak link among all this drama, acting as an unwelcome interruption rather than a useful addition. Who invited this guy, and why hasn't his voice fully broken yet? Nobody is asking Coyne to be melismatic like Mariah, or to phrase like Frank, or to have a range like Aretha. Just give us “competent,” instead of relying on that old “characterful” get-out clause. My h*cking cough is characterful.
The Soft Bulletin isn't a minger of a record, I'll concede that much. She even has some nice features, and she can bat her eyelashes pretty sweetly. But it's drunk talk to believe she is some model to be held up, a totem for the decade, a perfect album to love and love and love. The Soft Bulletin is a six-drinks girl, and she's putting on more lipstick and sliding you another vodka. Sure, go for it. But in the cold light of day, don't say I didn't warn you about the letdown.