Some part of me thinks that if had I heard The Soft Bulletin for the first time at age 23 instead of age 18, it would not have affected me nearly as much as it has. A small part of me, at least. I don’t think that many people would call Bulletin a “teenager album,” but as the record I held nearest and dearest to my heart during the summer before I left home for college – a summer that really felt like the LAST SUMMER of my ENTIRE LIFE – The Soft Bulletin became an aural document of every terrifying emotion I was feeling at the time, amped-up and blown apart for maximum impact. In layman’s terms, that one album turned a pretty lackluster transition from one boring school to another into The Biggest Fucking Thing Ever, and every time I hear it I feel like I’m experiencing all those confused, stupid emotions all over again. There are very few records that hit me at the right place and the right time like that one did.
But that’s the thing, see. Right place, right time. I get the impression that if I heard it now I’d be all like “Oh, this is pretty cool!” while preferring to champion lesser-loved Lips albums like Zaireeka or Hit To Death In The Future Head. Not to mention the unfortunate trend of fair-weather Lips fans shrugging off most pre-Soft Bulletin Lips albums as if they were part of some kind of regrettable “early period,” or the fact that the Lips themselves would indulge in obnoxious quirky cuteness shortly after Bulletin‘s success. Had I not been an impressionable youngster in need of some Big Emotional Drumming during an awkward and vulnerable period of transition, I might have felt about The Soft Bulletin the same way I feel about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea – “It’s good, but it’s not a masterpiece, people.”
Why am I even thinking about this. I am thinking about this because I have been listening to the Mercury Rev, a band that is so much like the Flaming Lips that you might even be inclined to call them their “sister band” if they weren’t a bunch of dudes. Not only did they share personnel (Rev lead singer/songwriter Jon Donahue was the Lips’ lead guitarist on In A Priest Driven Ambulance and bassist Dave Fridmann produced pretty much every great Lips album you can name), but they even had similar musical “arcs” throughout the 90s. Both bands started off the decade as druggy-pretty noise rockers, cleaned up their sound a bit after losing one of their key members midway, and ended the decade as ambitious big-hearted sweet-rock balladeers. Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs is pretty much their Soft Bulletin, only released a year earlier, and I feel the same way about it as those previously listed “masterpiece” albums – it’s good and pretty and nice, but I’m not goin’ nuts. I can easily say that I prefer the Rev’s earlier, noisier records, back when “other vocalist” and primo weirdo Dave Baker was still in the band.
Which makes it all the stranger that See You On The Other Side, the first Rev album released after Baker’s departure from the band in 1995, has become my most-listened album by these guys. Is it my favorite? I don’t know. It’s considered by most critics to be a decent but awkward transition between their noisier stuff and their cleaner stuff, so maybe my penchant for bucking mass critical opinion is getting the better of me. But it’s a mostly lovely and fascinating listen – especially considering that it was released in ’95, a few years before the Lips would indulge in these sorts of Brian Wilson-y pretty sounds themselves. Considering how close these two bands were, I have no doubt that Other Side was an influence on what would eventually become Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin.
What See You On The Other Side lacks is the full-blown “wall-of-sound masterpiece” production that Deserter’s Songs and The Soft Bulletin were going for, but that’s actually kind of an asset here. A big part of Other Side‘s charm lies in its humility and subtlety – its big, emotional moments build gradually, and never feel cheap. It also isn’t above incorporating noisy rock guitars into the mix, an element both bands would willfully abandon by the end of the decade – as pretty as “Empire State” and “Sudden Ray Of Hope” are, it’s kind of exhilarating to hear both of them ending with chaotic bursts of feedback. Other Side‘s worst songs are the ones that eschew subtlety for a more obvious approach – “Young Man’s Stride” is straight-up hard rock, which just sounds dopey and unconvincing in the wake of all this good-natured prettiness, while on the other hand “Everlasting Arm”‘s overly precious Pet Sounds approach pushes dangerously close to Polyphonic Spree territory. It’s a testament to the quality of the album that neither song is bad, necessarily – just kind of awkward.
But then you have a track like “Racing The Tide,” my favorite on here, which takes a line as simple as “I’m so close / I’m almost inside” and turns it into a gorgeous, immaculately-produced indie rock anthem, full of gentle guitars and violins and trembly multi-layered Donahue vocals. And right when you think it’s over, it bursts into “Close Encounters Of The Third Grade,” featuring hip-hop beats and wailing female backup vocals that are so wonderfully 90s dated they make me want to cry. I mean this as a compliment.
(Worth mentioning: the album came out in 1995, when I was actually IN third grade. Coincidence? Yes.)
Oh, did I mention the big key difference between the Flaming Lips and the Mercury Rev yet? I don’t think I did. The Mercury Rev are big sappy romantics – or at least Jon Donahue is. With Dave Baker out of the picture Donahue was finally able to indulge in all of his sweet romantic fantasies, and See You On The Other Side was the immediate result. Which is why you’ve got a track called “A Kiss From An Old Flame” on here. It’s a more significant difference than you might imagine – can you think of a single Flaming Lips love song that isn’t completely fatalist and depressing? Can you?? The Rev have none of that. No sad creepy darkness. Just love. Which is why I don’t think I’d be able to handle their later stuff. I’ve heard they got even sappier after the new millenium, but I haven’t heard any of those records yet. I’m rambling.
I’ve long forgotten how to end music reviews.