Since the Flaming Lips released The Soft Bulletin in 1999, the album has been hailed by some as the band’s masterpiece. But could it have been better if actual orchestral instruments had been used instead of layers of samples and synthesizers?
The answer came nearly two decades later, in 2016, when the Flaming Lips teamed up with the Colorado Symphony to perform The Soft Bulletin live in its entirety at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It was the first time the band played the album live with an orchestra. And, yes, backed by the orchestra's 69 instrumentalists as well as 56 singers from the Colorado Symphony Chorus, conducted by André de Ridder, the songs on the album took on an entirely new dimension.
On Friday, Warner Records dropped The Soft Bulletin Recorded Live at Red Rocks With the Colorado Symphony, the Lips’ first official live release since forming in 1983. Many of the tracks are more magnificent than the original 1999 versions. In part, that's thanks to extraordinary arrangements by DeVotchKa’s Tom Hagerman, who's also created orchestral arrangements for the Lumineers, Nathaniel Rateliff, Amos Lee, Gregory Alan Isakov and others.
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The two-minute intro to “Race for the Prize,” with strings, horns and harp, is like a slingshot slowly being pulled back into a crescendo, just before Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd launches the song into the stratosphere with his drums, and later keys and guitar. Hearing the song with a full orchestra is thrilling, but once the chorus comes in full tilt, it just might make you cry — or at least give you goosebumps.
Some songs remain mostly faithful to the originals, albeit embellished by the orchestra and chorus, while others, like “Buggin’” and “Waitin’ for Superman,” take on whole new dimensions. For one, there’s no drum kit on either. Frontman Wayne Coyne asked audience members to make insect sounds while the orchestra did the same, making it sound, as Coyne put it, like “a giant swarm of friendly insects of all types.” “Waitin’ for Superman” is performed as a ballad centered around piano early on; the chorus and tympani take center stage near the end.
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Just before the break in “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” there’s one of many epic buildups with the orchestra and chorus. The collaboration focused on beefing up the songs' dynamics, particularly on “The Spark That Bled,” which sounds massive here, as does “Suddenly Everything Has Changed,” and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," one of the most intense tracks of the night.
Do yourself a favor. Carve out a little over an hour to listen to this album on headphones without distractions. Close your eyes, open your heart, and you’ll not only hear the kind of pure magic 130 or so musicians can create, but it will transport you somewhere else entirely.
Hear The Soft Bulletin and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.