The Flaming Lips were in serious flux in 1997. After guitarist Ronald Jones left the band the remaining members, Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, and Steve Drozd, seriously wondered if the band was done. This led to a certain amount of artistic freedom. With no expectations of hits or standard album form the three, along with producer Dave Fridmann, created the experimental Zaireeka. Zaireeka was a sound experiment where four albums were required to be played simultaneously to get the full psychedelic effect.
It wasn’t what you’d call a success, but it opened the door to the Lips next album, the monumental The Soft Bulletin. Out of raw, uninhibited experimentation came one of the most revered psych pop albums of, at the very least, my generation. The Soft Bulletin was a reinvention of Oklahoma’s “Fearless Freaks”, and was the dawn of a brand new era and career for Coyne and Co.
Their newest release, The Soft Bulletin Companion, is a vinyl reissue of a promotional CD-R the Flaming Lips released in 1999. It contains alternate mixes and non-album tracks that represented both the unwieldy experimentation of Zaireeka, and the honed-in psychedelic pop majesty of The Soft Bulletin. The Soft Bulletin Companion is a window into a band being reborn.
What this album shows more than anything is that sometimes the fear of extinction brings out what a person is truly made of. “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet Of Despair” is not the same band that gave us “Bad Days” and “She Don’t Use Jelly”, and yet it is. There’s a lushness here that didn’t exist a mere three years prior. It’s as if Coyne allowed himself to be vulnerable for the first time. “Riding To Work In The Year 2525(Your Invisible Now)” is another wonder, a sort of psych Burt Bachrach-meets-Roky Erickson. Multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd proves he was far more than a great drummer. He’s essentially an orchestra in one man. His contribution to the Flaming Lips over the last 25 years can’t be overstated enough, and this album was his debut as the Lips secret weapon.
The alternate mixes of album tracks like “Buggin” and “The Spiderbite Song” are great and fascinating insights into alternate views of well loved songs, but the non-album tracks are the real treat here. The Soft Bulletin ended up being released in its perfect form, but hearing songs like “A Machine In India”, “Okay I’ll Admit That I Really Don’t Understand”, and “The Big Ol’ Bug Is The New Baby Now” is where the essential nuggets lie.
Over the course of 13 tracks the trio plus producer Fridmann gave us a preview of what was to come. This companion album paved the way for a whole new era of classic albums and technicolor pageantry for The Flaming Lips that is still alive and well today, 21 years later.
8.2 out of 10