WE AMERICANS, WE LIKE PACKAGING. We like bubble wraps and plastic wraps and brightly colored boxes. We like groups and bundles and categories. We like specific names, alphabetization, the Dewey Decimal System.

We want things easily referred to, easily referenced, easily comparable. We want to see a movie and say it was like that other movie. We want to read a book and say it reminds us of this other book. We want to listen to a song and say it sounds just like that other band.

We dislike mess. Mess is the devil's work. It's un-American. It doesn't make sense to us.

The new Flaming Lips record, The Soft Bulletin, is a complete mess. It's a train wreck of genres and ideas--a cross between '90s pop and Henry Mancini, with a little gospel and a few drum machines tossed in for good measure. Musical boundaries are blurred, bundles bundled together, categories cross-categorized. It's the most fucked-up record I've heard in years--either a colossal blunder or a work of brilliance, depending on when I listen to it--which is why I find it so amazing. Listening to it, I get the feeling that there is a secret behind it, a secret the band enjoys keeping from me. A mystery agenda. And it's that agenda, that secret, that keeps me listening.

When I was younger and I would ask my father what he did for a living, he would tell me he was a spy. It was always just that: "I'm a spy." Eventually I stopped asking, and to this day, as far as I know, he really is a spy--a covert operative who works in Everett and wears a suit every day. I like not knowing the truth. I like the fact that to this day, my father is still a secret agent to me. I like the mystery. The Soft Bulletin makes me feel this way. I hope I never find out the secret behind it, real or imagined.

Until now, the Flaming Lips have always had a dynamic behind them, a talent so readily apparent that they've been able to afford the luxury of fucking around (hence their appearance on Beverly Hills, 90210 a couple years back). But after more than a dozen years, even the most talented of bands inevitably finds itself trapped in a vicious cycle--after a while, there's nothing new left to do, no new ways to explore your songwriting style, so you revisit the beginning, where everything new is old. But instead of calling it quits, the Flaming Lips decided to take their songs and expand on them, meshing them with their sideshow endeavors like the "Boombox Experiments" (where 30 people on a stage would play pre-recorded tapes, each with a different sound, led by the Flaming Lips as conductors). The result is completely fresh, but eerily familiar.

For all its radical differences, The Soft Bulletin is still a Flaming Lips record. Songs like "Buggin'" and "What is the Light?" are merely classic Flaming Lips recordings souped-up and bloated with light strings and cheesy orchestrations that manage to meld much better than they should. It may in fact be the first easy-listening alternative record, and it works.

Fans are always easily violated by the ones they adore, and no doubt hardcore fans of the Flaming Lips will cry foul at The Soft Bulletin. It is a radical departure, but a brilliant one. Like Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On, it forces you to completely rethink a band, almost to the point of new discovery. The Soft Bulletin takes a little from everything, from every bundle and every category, tosses it up in the air and then picks up the pieces and pastes them together, lays them down on tape. The result is a collage--every genre slapped together, creating something that sounds brand new.

A friend of mine told me this joke once... .

A husband and wife are having sex in the living room. The husband says, "Gee honey, you sure are dry tonight." And the wife replies, "You're licking the carpet."

It may not be the best joke I've ever heard, but it's still a joke, and it still makes me laugh. The Soft Bulletin may not be the Flaming Lips I've come to know and love, but it's still the Flaming Lips, and it's their best record ever.

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