The Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots': still fighting fit at 20
After nearly two decades together as cultishly loved -- mostly commercially ignored -- psychedelic rock weirdos, Oklahoma's The Flaming Lips released The Soft Bulletin in 1999, a masterpiece that had some folks saying, "Wait, this is the 'She Don't Use Jelly Band'?" Sonically ambitious but loaded with pop melodies and thoughtful lyrics that most people could relate to, The Soft Bulletin might not have been as much of a surprise if people had the four CD players necessary to listen to their previous album, Zaireeka, but nonetheless it was a giant leap forward for the band and one of the great albums of the decade.
How do you follow up a universally praised record? You make a concept album about a robot designed to kill that falls in love with its target that ends up being the biggest album of your career. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was released July 16, 2002. "We made the Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots record, just really out of pure oblivion, and it really worked again," Wayne Coyne told ABC Australia. "For better or worse, we've not tried to learn that much about how the music business works...It was purely us saying, 'I have no idea what they're going to play on the radio. I have no idea what a cool video would be. I don't know any of these music business hot topics'."
So how did they do it? "I was listening to your melody," Coyne said to bandmate Steven Drozd in a promotional commentary that was recorded for release events at record stores. "And I took eight hits of acid." Drozd replied, "Eight hits? That's a lot of acid." Coyne said "It seemed to work out." While that story certainly sounds plausible for a band whose song titles have included "The Ceiling Is Bendin'," "Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World," "Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair," and "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," Coyne later said in the same commentary that the eight hits of acid story was "the lie" he likes to tell, that he's actually not much of a drug person, and that the only thing LSD ever gave him was "diarrhea and brain damage."
Wherever the idea actually came from...as concept albums go, honestly, Yoshimi is a little underbaked. Apart from the wonderful cover art painted by Coyne, and the first four songs (all great,) the plot is lost and the Lips never look back. Maybe that's why the album works so well. The story, such as it is, wraps up in less than 20 minutes -- with Boredoms' Yoshimi P-We providing some intense screaming along the way -- before moving onto more familiar (and better) territory for them. They ponder the inner workings of the heart and mind, our place in the universe, love and mortality, elation and despair.
Yoshimi is actually a little less out-there than its predecessor, with simpler arrangements and more direct lyrics. It's as if they took The Soft Bulletin's "Race for the Prize" and "Waitin' for a Superman," distilled them to their essence and made an entire record with those ideas.
The Flaming Lips have never been simpler or more direct than on "Do You Realize?," the album's first single and the band's most well-known, most requested, and most played song that lays out relatable, heart-tugging platitudes with a soaring melody that is full of whoa-ohs and stonery, whoa-inducing Deep Thoughts like, "You realize the sun doesn't go down / It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round." Coyne's sincerity and vocal delivery, that wobbles like the keyboard strings that coat the song, keep things from getting too treacly. It can still get you right here.
There's no other song on Yoshimi that mainlines to the heart the way "Do You Realize?" does, which is good because if it did it would be a Coldplay album. Coyne has a lot more on his mind, and Drozd and Fridmann have a lot more sonic tricks up their sleeves. The mix of acoustic guitars, very bloopy analogue synthesizers, glitchy hip hop beats, and some magnificent basslines from Michael Ivins may be a sonic mix they've never bettered. It works particularly well with Coyne's "happiness makes you cry" ruminations. "All We Have is Now," "It's Summertime" and "Are You a Hypnotist?" all wonderfully mix sunshine and melancholy.
Drozd's arrangements are inspired, with some wonderfully elegant touches. His insertion of minor chords, when you aren't expecting them, can be just as affecting as the lyrics. In fact one of the most moving songs on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is closing track "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon," a gorgeous, Morricone-esque instrumental rescued from the score for their long-in-production passion project sci-fi holiday film Christmas on Mars that won them a Grammy for Best Instrumental Rock Performance. You can feel all the wonder, the joy and sadness of the album in its fuzzy, exultant lead guitar line and its trumpets that shine like dual suns.
The Flaming Lips would change course after Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, making much darker, weirder records along with collaborations with Miley Cyrus, full-album covers of Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and even a return to their turn-of-the-millennium sound on 2020's great American Head, but they've always done it their way with little regard for what will actually sell. "I think the thing that serves our music the best is for us to be innocent and excited about expressing something," Wayne said in that ABC Australia interview. Not expressing... something that maybe a 13-year-old would like. I think if I tried that, I'd probably screw it up every time."
Sometimes, like on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, it all just lines up in that perfectly imperfect Flaming Lips way.