US - Oklahoma - Full Moon 71 - 07/24/02
The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
'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
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
"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 listener....to 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
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