Starting with Hear It Is in 1986, Oklahoma City outfit The Flaming Lips had a pretty routine schedule in their earliest years. Every 18 months or so, they’d put out a psychedelic, guitar-infused garage-rock record, with a few almost-single-worthy hits and maybe a fun cover. This output got the Lips signed to Warner Bros. by album number five, and number six, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, contained the closest they had come to a hit single: “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which they even performed on the Fox teen hit 90210.

After Transmissions follow-up Clouds Taste Metallic, however, the Lips took a bit of a departure with 1997’s Zaireeka, which consisted of four CDs intended to be played simultaneously. Not only did that effort strain the band’s finances, as music journalist Jim DeRogatis points out in his 2007 Flaming Lips biography, Staring At Sound, but also it presented a considerable hurdle for live touring. Frontman Wayne Coyne attempted to solve the problem by creating the “BoomBox Experiments,” which involved the band carting around 40 boom boxes and drafting friends in several cities to help press all the buttons simultaneously during the live set.

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

If the experiment lost the band a few fans, its next release won them all back and then some. Not even The Flaming Lips’ most ardent admirers could have expected The Soft Bulletin, an orchestral, emotional masterpiece that still stands as the peak of the Lips’ career, 20 years later.

As Coyne explains in a video for Yahoo, at the time that the band—drummer Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins, and Coyne himself—was making The Soft Bulletin, “We were working towards things that seemed more emotional.” Coyne’s father was dying of cancer, Ivins had recently been involved in a bizarre traffic accident that trapped him in his car for hours, and Drozd nearly had his arm amputated due to what he said was a spider bite, but that was actually an infection from heroin use. Lyrically, Coyne had previously tended toward the lofty or even the faux-religious (“God Walks Among Us Now” or “Shine On Sweet Jesus”). On The Soft Bulletin, he turned inward, getting so personal “that I never thought anybody would be able to relate to it.” In fact, it’s Coyne’s naked emotionality that transmits over the multitude of orchestral tracks, causing many critics to compare the album to the Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds. After the complicated musical experimentation of the Lips’ previous album, however, Coyne shrugged, “It didn’t seem like anything compared to Zaireeka.”

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The Soft Bulletin lulls in the listener from the first lush strains of opening track “Race For The Prize,” with waves of strings replacing the band’s usual fuzzy guitars to tell the story of two dueling scientists in a race to save humanity. In Staring At Sound, DeRogatis says that Coyne describes the song as “his ideal combination of Frank Sinatra and Led Zeppelin, and which neatly encompasses several of his recurring themes: Seize the moment; dare to live life to the fullest; believe in yourself, work hard, and you can accomplish anything.”

In the press release sent out with the record, Coyne—very Brian Wilson-like—states, “If someone was to ask me what instrument I play, I would say the recording studio.” That’s the overall effect of Soft Bulletin from this very first track: Coyne and his bandmates culminating into a strange and melodious orchestra, led by Coyne’s purposefully nasal vocals. The band continues in that vein, throwing everything at second track “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton”—angelic voices and heavenly strings that are soon overpowered by powerful percussion underlining the song’s undeniable riff. Since their inception as a band, the Lips’ had always been able to weave an irrepressible hook into the middle of whatever bizarre musical concoction they were crafting, and that foundation makes the tracks on Soft Bulletin imminently listenable even amidst all the complex orchestration. With lines like “Heard louder than a gun / The sound they made was love,” the song further developed Soft Bulletin’s theme of the binding power of love, delivered via bracingly original instrumentation.

The interplay between strings and drums continues in “The Spark That Bled,” which offers a tribal symphony before Coyne states, stirringly, “I stood up and I said ‘Yeah.’” The band’s restless experimentation then abruptly sends the song down a whole new path, changing the tone completely almost four minutes in: “And it seemed to cause a chain reaction…” led along by unexpectedly jangly guitar and another front-seat drumbeat.

“The Spiderbite Song” describes the challenging fates that had struck the individual band members, with verses dedicated to Drozd (“to lose your arm would surely upset your brain”) and Ivins’ car accident (“that whole thing just really seemed too bizarre”). Coyne’s own verse is dedicated to his then-partner, Michelle: “Love is the greatest thing our heart can know / But the hole that it leaves in its absence can make you feel so low.” Coyne’s affection for the people closest to him unites the song, while underscoring the album’s theme of love: “’Cause it if destroyed you / It would destroy me.”

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The record finally takes a breath with the lacy, lyrical “Buggin,” a silly ode to the things that “fly in the air / As you comb your hair.” Then “What Is The Light?” strips everything down to a somber piano part, as the myriad tracks fall into place and the drums fill in. Coyne’s altered vocals promise, “Love is the place that you’re drawn to,” opening up the song from its dark beginnings to a more welcoming, ethereally triumphant state.

After the pensive instrumental track “The Observer,” Soft Bulletin’s high point arrives with track number eight, “Waitin’ For A Superman.” It was inspired by a conversation Coyne had with his brother Kenny during their father’s illness, asking him, “It’s getting heavy with Dad, isn’t it?” His brother replied that the heavy part had already arrived. In the Yahoo video, Coyne says that the song is about “you being scared, but you already being brave.” We’re all waiting for Superman, but in reality we can all save ourselves, as “it’s just too heavy for Superman today.” This time piano leads the melody, augmented by horns and some bell-like percussion, expanding Coyne’s grief into an enveloping feeling of empathy.

“Suddenly Everything Has Changed” highlights the divine in the everyday. It also works as a sequel to “Superman”—how your life goes on after something devastating like the death of a parent, but your commonplace moments remain. While “Putting all the vegetables away / That you bought at the grocery store today,” you can stumble across some life-altering truth, as the band’s skyward strings and Coyne’s stirring vocals help to reorient you in this new reality: “it goes fast / You think of the past.”

If you’re undergoing a close listen to Soft Bulletin, you may be a bit wrung-out by this point—and then comes “The Gash” (a.k.a. “Battle Hymn For The Wounded Mathematician”), its heartfelt screams jolting you out of any pensive lull you may be in. “The Gash” is meant to rankle after so much tunefulness, as ominous synths and drumbeats encourage you to keep fighting, because “the battle that we’re in / Rages on till the end / With explosions, wounds are open.”

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Next, “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” kicks off with an odd vocal percussion before soothing guitars and strings return to Coyne’s theme of seizing every moment:

Love in our life is just too valuable

Oh, to feel for even a second without it

But life without death is just impossible

Oh, to realize something is ending within us

The song’s title, then, reminds us that every second that passes, we’ll never get back, and its repetition becomes a cautionary mantra. Finally, the somnambulant night sounds of the orchestral “Sleeping On The Roof” perfectly and almost devastatingly close out the vertiginous aural trip.

Coyne remembers in Staring At Sound that the positive reception to The Soft Bulletin started slowly, but sped up quickly: “As much as people seemed to like The Soft Bulletin, it wasn’t selling in America at first.” (The record’s enthusiastic reception in England led the Lips to go on a 20th-anniversary tour of the album there this year.) “But little by little, we kept touring and it started to click. It was a combination of luck and hard work.” The unabashed beauty of the record forced reviewers to move past their usual “Flaming Lips are weird” typecasting, DeRogatis states. NME named it album of the year, describing it as “a joyous, celestial celebration of sound.” AllMusic called it “not just the best album of 1999, The Soft Bulletin might be the best record of the entire decade.” Pitchfork gave it a rare perfect score and put the album at No. 3 on its “Top 100 Albums of the 1990s” list. Most other major outlets’ reviews were similar.

Make no mistake: The Flaming Lips were weird. And now they’d proven that they were capable of sonic brilliance, a revelation to the boy-band-clogged music world of 1999. The Flaming Lips, thanks to the record that Wayne Coyne thought no one would even be interested in, had finally arrived. DeRogatis remembers, now 20 years later:

For those of us who’d been big fans—and I certainly had, from the beginning —The Soft Bulletin came as a big surprise and a major leap forward… this exquisite, heartfelt, non-ironic (at the tail end of the alt era, when irony ruled!), orchestral-pop extravaganza, as surprising for its lush sounds as it was for Wayne the lyricist abandoning psychedelic fancy to talk from the heart, offering optimism, hope, and dare I say an almost emo outlook on the world… that life is very much worth living, even in the face of darkness and pain.

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The band followed up with Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots in 2002, famous for “Do You Realize??,” a song Coyne wrote as Drozd battled his drug addiction: “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” The song was picked up in ads for Hewlett-Packard and Mitsubishi, the Yoshimi album itself was made into a musical in 2012, and The Flaming Lips will perform the whole record next month at Chicago’s Riot Fest. No doubt, there will be confetti, and balloons, and a giant plastic bubble—and Coyne conducting it all like the mad maestro he is. 

After The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips transcended to a much higher level of music superstardom, never to float back down. They’ve maintained a steady studio-release pace since, along with greatest-hits collections and high-profile collaborations. But a straight listen to that 1999 record—sans lasers, balloons, or even hallucinogens—proves that the magic was there in the Lips’ music all along. “Superman” reminds us to hang in there, “Everything Has Changed” helps us remember what we’ve lost, and “Where Is The Light?” leads us back to the love that we’re lacking. Twenty years later, The Soft Bulletin is much more than an album, it’s a heart-wrenching sonic journey—an unforgettable one.