The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin Companion
Updated: Aug 21
Over the Flaming Lips’ four-decade career, there was no more crucial turning point than the period spanning 1996 to 1999, when the Oklahoma group narrowly escaped their imminent fate as alt-rock has-beens and transformed themselves into the megaphone-wielding pied pipers of the 21st-century festival circuit.
After their underperforming 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic failed to yield another “She Don’t Use Jelly” and guitarist Ronald Jones checked out, remaining members Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, and Steven Drozd liberated themselves from the pressures of writing hits—and the creative limitations of being a guitar-rock band—by conducting various synchronized-tape experiments with fleets of car stereos and battalions of boomboxes.
Released in 1997, Zaireeka was the play-at-home version of those site-specific events, presenting eight unwieldy songs spread over four CDs that were designed to be played simultaneously on four different players. Then, just two years later, the Lips distilled all that free-ranging exploration into the pristine orchestral rock of The Soft Bulletin.
The two records represent the polar extremes of the Lips’ canon. The dense and difficult Zaireeka was released in a limited edition (due to its bulky four-disc jewel-case packaging) and has never been made available for streaming or download. The Soft Bulletin, by contrast, was a universally praised classic that’s been feted with a symphonic live-album remount and a Pitchfork-produced documentary.
But a newly unearthed compilation reminds us that these oppositional releases were actually products of the same recording sessions with producer Dave Fridmann, and proves the two records really weren’t so fundamentally different after all.
The Soft Bulletin Companion was originally a limited-run promotional CD-R that featured alternate mixes, leftover tracks, and other oddities caught on tape between ’97 and ’99. While some of these recordings have since popped up as B-sides, compilation tracks, or bootlegs, The Soft Bulletin Companion’s reappearance—initially as a Record Store Day vinyl exclusive, now as a widely streamable set—restores a crucial chapter in Lips lore. For one, this is the only place where you can find traditional stereo mixes of five Zaireeka tracks, which confirm the album wasn’t just a huge sonic leap forward for the band, but a pivotal emotional breakthrough as well. When freed of Zaireeka’s logistical demands, songs like “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair” and “Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)” not only measure up to anything on The Soft Bulletin, their gravitas and smog-cloud atmosphere also point the way to later dystopian triumphs like Embryonic and The Terror.
Through this collection, we also get a clearer picture of all the fine-tuning that went into The Soft Bulletin’s HD vision. There’s a lovely alternate take of “The Spiderbite Song” that deemphasizes the original’s looped drum rolls for a gentle summery sway, and a dreamier version of “Buggin’” that effectively mutes Drozd’s drum track. “Buggin’” was the Soft Bulletin song that hewed closest to the “She Don’t Use Jelly” model of whimsical childlike sing-alongs (earning it an appearance on the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack), though it always felt a bit out of place in the middle of an otherwise weighty record. On the UK version of The Soft Bulletin, “Buggin’” was relegated to a bonus track, to make room for the equally splendorous yet less cutesy “Slow Motion,” and the latter’s inclusion here reminds us that the Brits got the better end of the deal.
Even a lighter track like “Slow Motion” underscores what made this phase of the Lips so impactful. As much as The Soft Bulletin turned Fridmann’s name into indie-rock shorthand for cinematic orchestration and heaven-sent harmonies, his production on these tracks is as raw it is radiant. If nothing else,
The Soft Bulletin Companion is a golden opportunity to revisit Drozd’s past life as the John Bonham of modern psych rock before he went on to assume a more multi-tasking musical-director role within the group. His loose yet thundering style makes even the incomplete scratch track of Skip Spence’s “Little Hands” a pleasure to behold (although its intended recipient—Robert Plant—never ended up using it for his tribute-album version).
But there’s no better measure of the Lips’ late-’90s zenith than the stellar songs that never found a proper home. These include “The Captain,” arguably the most over-the-top gesture from a period of over-the-top gestures. In stark contrast to The Soft Bulletin’s serious tone, the song’s snowballing orchestration exudes an anarchic joy, like riding a rollercoaster that’s just tipped over its peak into a never-ending free-fall. And then there’s the divine “Satellite of You,” a sweeping serenade that could be the closing-credits theme of a Hollywood musical circa 1945—or a last-call standard at a karaoke bar circa 2045.
It’s quintessential Lips, rife with down-home sentiments expressed in far-out imagery. However, for the Lips of the late ’90s, such space-age love songs were less the product of an overactive imagination than a simple reflection of the rarefied cruising altitude they occupied at the time. Now that billionaires are spending the equivalent of a small country’s GDP to enjoy a few minutes in suborbital space, The Soft Bulletin Companion offers a much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to experience that fleeting, zero-gravity sensation of floating at the top of the world.