When it comes to temperature in music, the most acclaimed works are often cold. Observing just albums from the ‘90s (and the early 2000s I suppose), we see the iciness of Ok Computer and Kid A, which arose from Thom Yorke’s depressive, analytical approach to the world and his art. The sluggishness of Red House Painters’ Down Colorful Hill is the perfect backdrop to the wintry cover image: a bed of despair which the narrator cannot lift himself out of. It’s generally agreed upon that an environment of coldness and despair makes the greatest works of art, especially—and unfortunately—when coupled with heavy drug use. Wayne Coyne seemed to have all these qualities in spades, especially the heavy drug use, though at the close of the decade, he and the rest of The Flaming Lips decided, confoundingly, to address them with one of the warmest albums of the era: 1999’s The Soft Bulletin.
Every instant of The Soft Bulletin is dedicated to drugs, including the title. Wayne Coyne is the “Soft Bulletin,” an emotional man who pictures himself a bulletin board, plucked full of holes by heroin needles instead of thumbtacks. What flows from those heroin injection points is not frustration, as in the case of Kurt Cobain, nor destruction, as in the case of Royal Trux, but beauty, a youthful joy that seeps out of every pore of every song. Perhaps my association of warmth and The Soft Bulletin mostly reflects the time of my personal discovery of The Soft Bulletin, but the association can be heard throughout the album, from the lush opening string-synth wail of Race for the Prize all the way up to the ending track, where the chirps of crickets dance around a soulful piano and synthesizer section. But the beauty is a mirage, a haze that covers up the same cold core found in those aforementioned albums. Following innovative, Pet Sounds-esque orchestral pop songs about spoonfuls and spider bites the fog nearly dissipates as Coyne seems to discover for the first time that addiction can have monumental consequences. The lyrics begin to sound worried as Coyne’s pathos reveals itself as the album nearly comes down from its high. The conclusion is nondescript, perhaps the return of the high or the embrace of it with a newfound fear. The themes and emotions of the album are abstracted as Coyne struggles to communicate the complexity of his thoughts through his filter of blissful ignorance.
The only constants in The Soft Bulletin are drugs and beauty, answering the pain thought to be inherent with heavy drug use with a colorful, psychedelic smile. A uniquely confused embrace of a destructive lifestyle with childlike wonder? Maybe. A sunny, gorgeous, progressive, and symphonic pop album which, for me, always signals the beginning of summer? Absolutely.