The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin - Review
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critics' view

Glastonbury Festival, in the summer of 2000. It is, predictably enough, wet. And Saturday’s Pyramid Stage headliners could well be described similarly. Travis have had an amazing 12 months, their second studio album The Man Who earning the Scottish outfit the Best Album and Best Newcomers awards at the Brits in March. The crowd for them goes back, back, and back some more, fires flickering up the hillside. But this is something I only witness in passing, as another band has had an equally brilliant year.

The Flaming Lips, Oklahoma oddballs responsible for the four-discs-at-once headache of 1997’s Zaireeka, have crossed into the mainstream courtesy of The Soft Bulletin, NME’s album of 1999. Experimentation has been tempered; the group’s out-there tendencies reined right in for a collection that sings with the same warmth and composure that characterised The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. It’s proggy, it’s rocky – but it’s not prog-rock, really; nothing that the average man on the street can’t lean an ear towards and be immediately rewarded. Seventeen years and nine albums since their formation, The Flaming Lips are headlining at Glastonbury, playing to a packed tent.

That stage, after 17 years: the New Bands tent. On paper, it makes no sense. In the presence of Wayne Coyne and company, with hand puppets in place of crowd-surfing bubbles and multiple dancers dressed up as aliens, everything’s exactly as it should be though. Race for the Prize and Waitin’ for a Superman – these are anthems built for mass celebration, and while the crowd isn’t wholly won over yet, fast-forward a few years and the reverence for these tracks is clear wherever The Flaming Lips pitch up with their travelling freak(ishly brilliant) show.

Ultimately, this record paved the way not only for The Flaming Lips to enjoy commercial success far beyond their homes, but also opened the doors for younger acts with a spirit of adventure in their blood to breach the pop charts. Just as previous releases had influenced the likes of Grandaddy and Mercury Rev, The Soft Bulletin and its successor Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots have informed acts including MGMT and Empire of the Sun. This is an album of its time, sure – but one with a reach that continues to feel its way around the modern musical landscape. Those thousands singing along to Why Does It Always Rain on Me?, in the drizzle, are probably kicking themselves over a decade on that they missed the opportunity to be at what was, in hindsight, Ground Zero for The Flaming Lips’ evergreen appeal.

Mike Diver
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading. external-link.png

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