Listening to the Flaming Lips’ 1999 original “The Soft Bulletin” is like playing I-spy with music — each song is packed and layered with synthesizers, orchestras, background animal noises, heartbeat bass line motifs, ambiguous lyrics, the works. It would take at least ten listens before anyone could discover all the hidden musical eccentricities. Although their album was considered an innovative “must-own” of the ’90s, the Lips were never really satisfied, and so they went back to work.
Upping the ante, the Lips have now revised, remixed and re-released the album in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound, and topped it off with bonus songs and videos to boot. To really understand the new product, “The Soft Bulletin 5.1”, requires some familiarity with both the band and with musical production, a full explanation of which goes beyond the eight-page limits of this humble publication.
Ultimately, by remixing “Soft Bulletin” in 5.1, the Lips have freed themselves from the confines of the left-right audio format and have created a genuine auditory experience. The album comes paired with an instruction booklet, which unfortunately is, at times, as helpful as the instructions that come with IKEA futons. That said, before enjoying the experience, the listener must be absolutely sure he has the proper setup.
Do you have a 5.1 surround sound system? Are the front and back speakers ten feet apart? Is the system set on DVD audio priority? Are you standing equidistant form the speakers? If you are like most Yalies the answer is no. And you are not set up for the experience. And it will sound just like the original. And you will want your money back.
Once properly set-up (luckily the Yale Digital Media Center has a room with the exact specifications), you’ll experience music as never before. Attempting to avoid pretension and truly accommodate their listener, the Lips also include specific directions for each song. For the standout track “Gash,” frontman Wayne Coyne has written: “Staged as if the soundtrack of some gigantic, galactic, Wagnerian opera battlefield … drum patters are randomly firing from speaker to speaker like canon shells exploding and landing.” Experienced properly, this is a precise description of the song; the listener might even unconsciously duck for fear of being hit by a flying snare drum.
For the similarly impressive “Spider-bite Song,” Coyne explains that they used a joystick to perform the sound production, providing them with increased accuracy of control. The result is a drum pattern that seamlessly travels fully around the room, like an invisible force closing in on the listener, creatively capturing the fear of the lyrics. Comparing this version to the original reveals a stark contrast — the previous sound is exposed as inherently two-dimensional.
At times, however, the instructions and whole effort border on cheesy hokiness. On “The Spark That Bled,” it would take multiple listens to find the ephemeral two-second effect so enthusiastically highlighted by the instructions. In the end, it’s this unfaltering enthusiasm — e.g. Coyne uses a minimum of three exclamation points — that makes the faults forgivable!!!
Even their wacky music videos testify to the inexhaustible enthusiasm and creative playfulness. Both videos, especially “Race for the Prize,” showcase their whimsical surrealism: Coyne’s hand is inexplicably replaced by a crab claw, the orchestra is nonsensically dressed in yellow parkas, and a strange man is heroically racing on a highway.
Already laden with content, the two-disc set never stops giving, as the DVD goes on to explore some previously unreleased tracks. In the pamphlet Coyne declares “The Captain” as their proudest work, but the real standout is “1000ft Hands”. The song is sincerely simple in melody and yet engagingly creative in layering and mixing. Background laughter bounces from side to side, imparting the aura of psychosis that Coyne says he felt at the time. But be forewarned, these extra tracks are not surround sound, as much as you’ll wish they were.
As a whole, the album is entirely rewarding, dare I say enlightening. But that’s only assuming that you have the appropriate equipment, and in that vein, the Flaming Lips are genuinely ahead of their time. Listening to “Soft Bulletin 5.1” on iPod headphones will be less I-spy, and more needle-in-the-haystack. So while the re-release may be a theoretical masterpiece, it is, in essence, a practical mediocrity.