The Flaming Lips kicked off the 20th edition of Noise Pop – a weeklong, citywide festival held in San Francisco each February – with a concert that was everything a rock concert should be: entertaining, poignant, silly, cathartic, psychedelic . . . and orgasmic. Yes, at ringleader Wayne Coyne’s insistence, much of the audience participated in a loud, fake group orgasm after Coyne sang the life-affirming ending of “Spoonful Weighs a Ton” early in the night.
The show was special not only because it marked the Flaming Lips’ long-awaited return to Noise Pop – in an intimate venue that only holds around 500 people – but also because they had announced they would be performing their 1999 masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, in its entirety.
“I don’t think about these songs very often,” Coyne told Rolling Stone earlier in the day. “That’s how all songs are – you do them, you record them, and then you move on to the next song. But if you’re lucky like us, you get to go back and go, ‘Oh wow, that’s a really great part there! I mean, at the end of ‘Spoonful Weighs a Ton,’ I get to sing that great line: ‘Yelling hard as they can/ The doubters all were stunned/ Heard louder than a gun/ The sound they made was love.’ If we hadn’t written that song, I would want to sing that – it’s so good.”
Indeed, as Coyne explained to the audience several times, in several ways, during several monologues, The Soft Bulletin is an emotionally heavy set of songs, addressing aspects of life which aren’t always beautiful and certainly aren’t always easy – things like love and loss, addiction, disease and death. But the songs are also triumphs of spirit and humanity. They remind listeners that if we refuse to see these things as defeats, we can start seeing them as something that’s somehow an important part of being alive – and that music itself can heal.
“Without our songs, where the fuck would we be?” Coyne asked, rhetorically. “Other people talk about God, but music is the god that I want to submit to and belong to and obey. Because it tells you to hang in there, motherfucker.”
Over the years, the Flaming Lips have released several different versions of The Soft Bulletin, with not all the songs making the cut on all the packages. While the band has performed the album perhaps more than a dozen times by Coyne’s count, they’ve rarely played all the songs from all the editions. But they treated the crowd at Bimbo’s 365 Club on Tuesday to what might amount to the album’s box set – including one of the only live performances of “Slow Motion” ever.
As the album unfolded and the band expanded various parts to create something that flowed flawlessly – even victoriously – through all its emotional twists and turns, The Soft Bulletin revealed itself to be a genuinely perfect album, meant to be taken whole. It is, in some ways, the Flaming Lips’ own Dark Side of the Moon – that Pink Floyd album that the Lips also happen to sometimes cover live, in its entirety.
During “The Spiderbite Song,” a track which many fans have taken to be a metaphor for multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd’s well-documented drug problem, Coyne sang plaintively, “I was glad that it didn’t destroy you/ How sad that would be/ ‘Cause if it destroyed you/ It would destroy me.” Looking at Drozd, Coyne interjected, “I’m glad that it didn’t destroy Steven. I’m so glad.”
But Coyne also seized moments where he turned the lyrics around on the audience, taking an opportunity during “Waiting for a Superman” to point out the song’s epiphany: We – each and every one of us – are the superheroes we are waiting for.
As the Flaming Lips wrapped up with the tragic and emotionally difficult “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” Coyne reminded the audience that music “sends us out in the world to say, ‘We’re in this together!’ The dilemma is that we love the world, and we love life, and we’re curious – ‘What is this stuff that we’re feeling?’ – but at some point, you start to discover that there are horrible things out there and you can’t help but to come to the conclusion that life is more horrible than it is beautiful.”
When the crowd started booing that tragic observation, Coyne quickly explained, “We don’t want to think that’s true, but there are a lot of horrible things out there that affect all of us . . . The Soft Bulletin says we don’t have a choice [about that] . . . but we are the ones that can make the world happy and beautiful. We are the ones that can turn on our light and the light of those around us . . . and we can endure . . . Maybe that, in the end, is the bulletin.”
After delivering the album in its entirety – and then some – the Lips encored with the only non-Bulletin cut of the evening, “Do You Realize?” Written for The Soft Bulletin’s follow-up, the song deals with many of the same themes that were recurrent throughout the performance; it is a meditation on the frailty and impermanence of life. Thus, it proved to be a natural coda for the evening and, with cannons of confetti firing away, it was an inspiring mix of celebration and catharsis, reflection and release.
Before launching into it, Coyne invited Noise Pop’s producers onstage and presented them with a certificate that came directly from San Francisco Mayer Ed Lee, declaring February 21st- 26th Noise Pop Week. As if local music fans hadn’t known that already, for the past 20 years.
Noise Pop continues through Sunday with shows by Sleigh Bells, Die Antwoord, Cursive, Built to Spill, the Budos Band, Surfer Blood, Jolie Holland, the Dodos and a first-ever, post-Sugar performance of Copper Blue, in its entirety, by Bob Mould. Good luck topping the Flaming Lips.