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coverpic flag US - Oklahoma - Full Moon 71 - 07/24/02

The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
Warner Bros.

'As weeks passed and spring became summer, the realization of her death slowly bloomed - it was very strange - never at once did it overwhelm me, it did not come like some giant black spear piercing my chest, as other deaths had done - it came a drip at a time - never a rush of the unthinkable - it came as a gentle devastation...' - Wayne Coyne on the recent death of a Japanese friend.

Losing his father during the recording of Clouds Taste Metallic seems to have really turned around Wayne's approach to his music. From that album onwards, the frivolity of songs such as "She Don't Use Jelly" gave way to slightly more serious, considered ruminations on death. However, the dizzying crescendos of The Soft Bulletin seemed to suggest that by playing with sound Wayne could overcome this existential crisis and make beautiful, uplifing music in the process.

This cathartic tone carried through to all subsequent Lips live shows, where Wayne's tendency to act as showman revealed geniune desire to touch strangers with the sounds he heard in his head. Their new album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, though colourful, at times playful and fun, seems preoccupied with these feelings of 'gentle devastation' that came from the death of his Japanese friend.

So, he asks us 'Do you realize that everyone you know will someday die?' Death is not just a jolt that makes us appreciate the magic of love and life - it is a constant struggle with our own sense of who we are and where our lives are going. This struggle permeates Yoshimi... like a terminal disease, making it a sobering listening experience once you recover from the dazzle of the production.

The Lips sound is now almost wholly synthetic. The humanity of the songs still shines through, but the general tone is one of weary resignation, of melancholic resilience. The album, contrarily, begins with the most upbeat song "Fight Test". Striding forward with fat, squeaking bass and crisp drum beats, it finds Wayne declaring that 'it's all a mystery' and confessing 'I don't know where the sunbeams end and the starlight begins... I don't know how a man decides what's right for his own life'. On paper it sounds pretty desperate, but in the context of this glorious song you can feel hope breaking through the confusion. But this feeling of confusion continues...

"One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" ponders the definition of what makes us human over a stunning electro backdrop. Continuing the theme of man's relationship with science from The Soft Bulletin, it considers whether we will develop robots that can mimic human emotions. This is where the concept of the album seems to come in, as the evil robots in question battle Yoshimi but are undermined by their ability to feel guilt for what they are doing. They cannot kill because they have a conscience. And so the preparations Yoshimi makes in "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt 1" come to fruition in "Pt 2" as she defeats the robots amid squelching chromatic basslines and screams.

After this opening quartet of songs the concept seems to lose its way a little, even though the themes are continued. "In The Morning Of The Magicians" alternates between an upbeat stroll and string-drenched contemplation that, like "Suddenly Everything Has Changed" off Bulletin, demonstrates a lightness of touch that allows the tone of the music to see-saw beautifully over the course of the song. The meditation of "What is love and what is hate and why does it matter?" has no easy answer - the Magicians of the title must wake up in the morning and wonder whether they can perform again the next day, despite the miracles they have previously pulled off. Doubt permeates....and saturates "Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell", as the sense of self has to be abandoned: 'I was waiting on the moment and the moment never came'. All the hope in the world can strengthen our resolve to change our lives for the better, but should never drift aimlessly into idealism, hence the refrain of "I must have been tripping", vague and distanced from reality. Perhaps a retort against those journalists who would label Wanye and his bandmates as drug-addled, only able to create these imaginative musings with the aid of psychedelics that distort our perception.

There's paranoia here too in "Are You A Hypnotist??", probably the most instantly gratifying song on the album, with its awesome Drozd drum patterns, doctored by computer to create delicious rolls and fills. The wordplay, backed by the wavering of an organ, is awesome: 'I had forgiven you for tricking me again but I have been tricked again into forgiving you'. With a fertile imagination there must be a flipside, and here Wayne is panicking that all he does for his loved ones is part of a mind-control experiment with him as a subject.

But ultimately what he feels for other people is genuine love, as "It's Summertime" proves - the song he wrote for the sisters of the Japanese girl who died, and a simple tune to reassure them in their time of trouble. Subtitled "Throbbing Orange Pallbearers" (a great image), it turns the introverted paranoia of "Hypnotist" outwards, imploring the listener to appreciate all the life outside themself as an antidote to the 'self-reflected inner sadness' of mourning.

This is blown apart by 'Do You Realize?', injecting a real tempo change into the record. A cynic may say that it sounds like it was written as an obvious single on the back of which to sell the album, but in between songs such as "It's Summertime" and the following "All We Have Is Now" it's a rush of excitement. The key change is an obvious radio-friendly device, but here it works in taking the song to a whole new level, as the acoustic guitars chime and the tom-toms thud a rousing tattoo. An awesome, uplifing song that levitates the only be floated down to earth again by "All We Have Is Now", along with "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" one of the most shatteringly sad songs the Lips have yet created. Underpinned by a spacey, funereal organ, and Wayne's voice quavering through effects, the realisation of mortality is absolute: 'You and me were never meant to be part of the future'. A devastating realisation, but one which helps us appreciate all we have in the moment we are experiencing. A really beautiful, moving penultimate song.

Yoshimi is then carried away into the clouds as "Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)" buouys up the listener with fuzzy lead guitars, horns and ethereal vocals. It starts off sounding eerily like "Blue Jay Way" by The Beatles but manages to transcend the weary fug of that classic with trademark Lips production genius and Steven Drozd's multi-instrumental flair. As a closer it feels like an anti-climax, but is oddly in-keeping with the tone of the rest of the record, sending you right back to the defiant relief of 'Fight Test' at the start of the disc.

Definitely an album to replay again and again, the cliche of music rewarding with repeated listeners couldn't be more true. The spellbinding highs of The Soft Bulletin may not be in evidence, but what do you expect? It's a curse as well as a blessing to create an album that majestic, and The Flaming Lips have taken a different direction that enriches in a different way. Christ, Wayne Coyne is 41. Not to sound ageist, but I think he's realising he can't continue making uplifting music all his life, hence his rumoured journey into 'crushingly depressing dirges' with the soundtrack to their forthcoming film Christmas On Mars.

The Flaming Lips have taken us to an unfamiliar place, but I think you'll find it's a remarkable place to be. Not immediately gratifying, but there's so much here to explore and feel that in a strange way they've given us what we want. If they'd have done a retread of The Soft Bulletin then critics would have been up in arms, accusing the band of treading water. Instead they've stepped out of the water, towelled themselves down, and sit in the sun pondering the meaning of life with a concerned look on their faces...

Copyright © 2002 Tim Clarke e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Flaming Lips articles/reviews: Stubb's, Austin, TX, August 1st, 1998, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, The Terror.

© 2011 Luna Kafé