The term magnum opus tends to be thrown around a lot in music journalism: however, it’d be disrespectful to refer to The Flaming Lips’ beloved LP The Soft Bulletin as anything but that. Heralded as an instant classic upon release in 1999, the record’s joyous exploration of art-rock, psychedelia and electronica saw The Flaming Lips break through to the mainstream and establish themselves as a true creative force – a musky whiff of weirdness to taint the clinical pop stylings of the era.
It’s a record that’s adored by fans and casual listeners alike, and without it, it’s possible that bands like MGMT, Animal Collective and Pond could have ever existed at all. Thus, when the band announced they’d be performing The Soft Bulletin in its entirety to Australian audiences earlier in the year to celebrate its 20th anniversary, a lot of people lost their collective shit.
First thing’s first: I did not expect Hamer Hall to turn up like it did last night. Obviously, The Flaming Lips have a reputation as a wildly colourful and rowdy live act, but the prospect of seeing them play an anniversary show to a seated crowd definitely led me to assume this would be a relatively chill, retrospective gig. With ‘Also Sparch Zarathustra’ blaring over the loudspeakers as the band took to the stage, frontman Wayne Coyne raised his fists to the air like a shaman, coaxing a roar from the audience as they rushed from their seats to mob the front. Seconds later, the band launched into opener ‘Race For The Prize’ as confetti cannons blasted their payload and dozens of humongous coloured balls were launched into the crowd. When Coyne somehow conjured a huge silver balloon saying FUCK YEAH MELBOURNE and hoisted it above his head like a hard-earned prize, the masses went ballistic – has the opening five minutes of a show ever been so wild?
Part of the charm of The Soft Bulletin is how well it flows in sequential order, and this live show really emphasised that. The symphonic boom of ‘A Spoonful Weighs A Ton’ and ‘The Spark That Bled’ lifted the momentum to a level I’ve not ever experienced within a band’s first three songs, and this energy rarely faltered over the duration of the two hour set, even on quieter cuts like ‘The Spiderbite Song’. ‘Buggin’’ saw Coyne manage to convince the entire crowd to buzz like an insect for a solid five minutes upon command, while ‘What Is The Light?’ and ‘The Observer’ featured multi-instrumentalists Steven Drozd and Derek Brown weaving between keys and guitar to offer a lush sonic interlude. It’s a good point here to note that these guys are all incredibly tight musicians, with Drozd’s guitar work in particular being a huge highlight of the night, although with so much going on onstage, it was hard to hear Coyne and bassist Michael Evans at points throughout the evening
Next up were fan favourites ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’ and ‘Suddenly Everything Has Changed’, marking the middle point of the evening and provoking a huge response, with Coyne’s impassioned performances on these cuts infecting the crowd with a surreal sense of optimism. The frolicking grooves of ‘The Gash’ and the penultimate pseudo-beat-box symphony of ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ saw the Lips tug at the audience’s heartstrings again before performing the instrumental ‘Sleeping On The Roof’ to draw an end to The Soft Bulletin, giving them the chance to slink offstage for a quick breather.
After The Flaming Lips returned to stage with another huge inflatable to perform ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt.1’, Wayne Coyne took a moment to deliver an impassioned address on friendship and mental health before Drozd, Brown and himself performed a stripped back cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’. After coercing the crowd into chaos for the majority of the night, this proved to be a vulnerable highpoint, creating a powerful quiet which almost served to bolster the relentless energy of the evening. As the band concluded their set with confetti-accompanied renditions of ‘All We Have Is Now’ and ‘Do You Realize?’ and departed the stage, it was difficult to not be overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all. For two euphoric hours, The Flaming Lips transported Hamer Hall into an alternate reality where sound and vision collided to forge a totally surreal multi-sensory experience; one where every song, lyric and riff meant something special to each individual; where everyone could grab at confetti and dance regardless of whether they were decked out in mask and cape or suit and tie. If there’s such a thing as a utopia, it’d almost certainly be at a Flaming Lips gig.