The Flaming Lips: Yoshi Battles The Pink Robots
Sep 21, 2002
YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS, The Flaming Lips (Warners)
It’s been a long strange trip for the Flaming Lips. For almost two decades these oddball Oklahomans have been paddling their own peculiar pop-art canoe, and as a listener you’re never sure where they’re taking you; it might be the 20-minute space jam of "Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory" or 1997’s Zaireeka, a set of four CDs, designed to be played simultaneously.
And yet without compromising their natural tendency towards the quirky, their course has occasionally converged with the mainstream. There was the unexpected radio hit "She Don’t Use Jelly" in the early 90s and, at the turn-of-the-millennium, the monumental The Soft Bulletin.
Such rare but significant successes must surprise even Wayne Coyne, who has been the Lips navigator-in-chief from their initial amorphous indie releases. Their latest album finds them hanging onto their major label deal, managing to be both barking mad and deeply moving, while remaining defiantly different from anything else around.
Using the battleground as its central motif, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is perfectly conflicted. Throughout its 47 minutes you will hear analogue sounds sparring with digital ones, earnestness fighting humour, maturity v juvenilia. Though the music frequently seems frivolous, the underlying theme couldn’t be more serious. This is a record about the struggle against, and ultimate acceptance of, death. Manga comic-book imagery, bubblegum tunes, robo-pop vocals, squealing synthesisers and mindlessly ticking drum machines – a virtual inventory of things commonly deemed to be soulless – are mashed into a song-cycle that deals with the very essence of being human.
That’s not apparent from the start, though. In "Fight Test", the bubbling opener with its squelching synth bass and a melody cribbed from Cat Stevens, we are simply told that there’s some kind of battle going on; what is at stake might be moral, it might be physical. Coyne’s vulnerable protagonist confesses that he is a person who has always avoided conflict, and though he doesn’t know how to defend himself he knows he can no longer run. "Cause I’m a man not a boy/and there’s things you can’t avoid/you have to face them when you’re not prepared to face them".
So he places his faith in Yoshimi, a black-belt superhero figure who "won’t let those robots eat me". But if the naïve simplicity of the song’s lyric and its bubblegum melody don’t make it obvious, it soon becomes clear that Yoshimi is a false hope, a cartoon mirage. And somewhere in the animated prog-riff instrumental that follows ("Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2") she simply disappears.
In the quieter, more reflective tracks that follow, Coyne’s character turns inward to contemplate life’s big questions. "What is love and what is hate/and why does it matter?" he quavers in "In the Morning of the Magicians", sounding like Neil Young beamed in from some parallel synth-pop universe. If only Young’s Trans had been more like this. It’s a haunting performance.
The journey concludes in "Do You Realise?" and "All We Have Is Now"; a couple of lushly arranged ballads, in which Coyne’s character confronts and finally accepts his mortality. "You and me were never meant to be part of the future/all we have is now", he sings, shaky yet resolved, in the penultimate track. If that seems too heavy a note to end on, the disc rounds out with the nutty instrumental coda "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)", which might be surf music from Mars.
But you don’t have to smother yourself in the album’s sombre themes to enjoy its crazy textures, its yearning melodies, its mad collision of underworld noise and classic pop. Just the basslines – spiral staircase constructions that recall the best McCartney – can keep me amused for hours. And there are laughs; hamfisted drum loops and exploding synth solos that parody the group’s own prog-rock inclinations. The real battle is between this and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the most beautifully misshapen pop album of the year.