Listen to this track by Oklahoman new-psych art rock trio The Flaming Lips. It’s “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton”, the second track off of their 1999 magnum opus The Soft Bulletin. That album was not only a landmark album in their career, being their ninth. It also became a landmark album for the times as well, a sumptuous and artfully realized goodbye to the twentieth century.
This song is one of many that laid out a new template for the ‘Lips for which they continue to be associated today. On it, they decided to cut back on the guitars a bit, and focus more on varied textures. Part of this was an embrace of electronics, which was a natural progression for rock bands in the nineties. The walls between rock music and electronic music were very thin indeed then, and certainly musically permeable without the artists being self-conscious about it. Another was a more expansive approach to production (handled here in part by the band themselves) and to arrangements that included orchestral instruments, including harp, strings, and gong, the latter played (whacked?) by lead singer and head writer Wayne Coyne when they toured the record that summer. Seeing him wail on the gong live on stage was a musical highlight for me that year.
But, getting back to the idea that this album and this song seemed to be a marker of the late twentieth century, there are certainly threads to follow that tie it to pop music of several decades earlier. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this song, and about The Soft Bulletin in general is that it captures something that is quintessentially twentieth century; optimism and idealism when it comes to the future.
There’s always been something of the child-like about The Flaming Lips’ stuff, particularly starting here at this stage in the life of the band beyond their 1993 single “She Don’t Use Jelly“, which seemed to be authored by another band entirely by The Soft Bulletin but for Coyne’s distinctive vocal. It’s this sense of childlike wonder that allows this song to work so well, with Coyne’s cracked and boyish lead vocal easily adding this dimension and miles of personality to the proceedings. Perhaps this is the reason the record was compared so readily by critics and many fans at the time as a sort of nineties answer to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. This had to do with the sonic richness in arrangements and textural delicacy in terms of the production on both works. But, each one also captures something of a boyish and charmingly idealistic atmosphere and general vibe that seem to put them in the same spiritual family as far as pop records go.
In the same way that the two records share some important musical similarities, similar too were the times out of which each record came. The mid-sixties was a time of social change and hope for a new society, but still imbued with the sheen of post-war bliss to be enjoyed at least by the mainstream, even if the fires of civil unrest were beginning to rise. In this post-WW2 period, science fiction stories were rife with images of a shining future of equity and fairness through technology and with many of the problems of the world eliminated through science, reason, and humanism. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek debuted the same year Pet Sounds came out, 1966, presenting a future full of glorious and limitless possibilities where the abilities and capacities of humankind were concerned. Wayne Coyne would have been an impressionable kindergartener by then.
So, maybe it’s this same spirit which critics and fans also found in this song, and in the opening track “Race For A Prize“, which begins the story that “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton” continues, of scientists striving for the good of all. The twenty-first century loomed by the time this record was released in the summer of 1999. The Berlin Wall had fallen only ten years before, and Western economies were stable. There was hope that the future which we’d envisioned for ourselves in the post-war period could possibly come true. Despite wars still raging in the Middle East and in Bosnia, among other places, there was still a sense of optimism in the air even if that sixties-style idealism was tempered with nineties self-awareness. The twenty-first century was still the future even then, associated in our twentieth century minds as a time when humanity would finally overcome our shortcomings, and maybe get a jet pack out of it in the process.
In this song, that sense of sadness of what came before is evident. We still have a past of wars and greed and prejudice behind us. But in this idealistic vision, we can lift up the sun, either figuratively or literally, with love being our guide. It was easier to believe that this was possible before 9/11, wars on terror, political obtuseness on an unprecedented scale, and an actual shift away from trusting science in the form of climate change denial and anti-vaccination movements in the mainstream. To this, even if the nineties was a more idealistic time in its way as things were relatively stable during that decade, that aforementioned sense of self-awareness was just as prevalent. As such, this song always seemed to me like a subtle lament as much as it does a song of celebration. It sounds like the voices of a past era as they longed for a future that they truly hoped and believed could happen. In the last days of the twentieth century, it felt like time was running out for this kind of optimism, with a sneaking feeling that it was the beginning of the end to that unique brand of innocence when a vision of a just and peaceful future seemed so sharply defined.
This bittersweetness for me adds to its beauty in 2015. Even if the future isn’t so easily defined today, or not nearly as bright in the stories we’re telling ourselves about it, the fact that this record is still lauded as an important one that belongs in every record collection is perhaps proof that the hope found in it still resonates. Perhaps we may even come to believe it again.
The Flaming Lips are an active group today. You can catch up to them at flaminglips.com
And for a sense of Wayne Coyne’s left of center worldview complete with a Falstaffian gleam in his eye that seems to leap off the screen as you read, check out this interview conducted by The Guardian. In it, Coyne talks about covering the Beatles and working with Miley Cyrus (with whom he got matching tattoos!) and a bunch of other stuff.