The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi vs. the Pink Robots
Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, and Steven Drozd are in the habit of making albums that listeners fall into, and once you’re in you don’t really want to climb out. This happened first to me with Clouds Taste Metallic, that wildly weird and pretty/ugly pop-rock masterpiece, and some lucky people scored the four-discs-at-one-time freakout Zaireeka and haven’t escaped yet.
But for most people, their Lips immersion began with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. That one took years to record (and reputedly millions of dollars), and it sounded like the entire realm of experience all combined into one album; Wayne’s heartfelt paeans to his band, to science, to his father, and to the infinity of possibility in this universe were stirring and stunning and pretty and gut-wrenching and everything anyone wanted in an album. (I still prefer Clouds Taste Metallic, though.)
So here they are, back in 2002, with 48 minutes’ worth of philosophical music from another galaxy. There are strings here, but anyone hoping for another orchestral-pop affair will have their head spun around again, because this is their most electronic album ever. Yeah, there are pretty string sections and beautiful guitar lines and slamming drums, but somehow they’ve nestled right in alongside squelches and burbles and lurches.
That shows up from the very beginning in “Fight Test,” when an Orwellian voice intones “The test begins… NOW!” and collapses into echo. This song encapsulates the mystery and magic of Coyne’s songcraft: at once both light n’ breezy and deep n’ questioning, it takes on the conundrum of how adulthood forces you to fight for things you want even when you hate fighting. I’m not sure that lyrics like “Cause I’m a man, not a boy / There are things you can’t avoid / You have to face them / When you’re not prepared to face them,” will make sense to people until they’ve faced real hard dilemmas in their lives… but those of us who have have just found our musical guru.
The next three songs can be yoked together as a sci-fi trilogy. “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” is the story of a machine who learns how to feel emotions; I wish I had room to talk about the textures here and Ivins’ amazing McCartneyesque basswork here. It segues right into the two-part title track, which is one of the most ambitious things anyone’s attempted for years. Part 1 introduces us to Yoshimi, a martial arts superheroine (based on Yoshimi P-We, the Boredoms drummer and leader of her own OOIOO) who is training and taking vitamins to defeat some kind of evil pink robots. These robots could be unfeeling humans or our own worst impulses, or they could just be pink robots – it doesn’t matter, though, because once we’re into Part 2 the battle is on: great crashing marching synths & cymbals squaring off against Yoshimi’s screams and, presumably, triumphant karate work. We know she’s kickin’ ass because the crowd keeps bursting into applause.
This introduces the second three-song trilogy. “In the Morning of the Musicians” takes forever or six minutes to unfold its pretty Floydian tale of being lost: “What is love and what is hate? / And why does it matter?” It works perfectly with the lost-love tale of “Ego Trippin’ at the Gates of Hell,” and both lead right into the hooky “Are You a Hypnotist?” in which Wayne tries to figure out why he keeps forgiving people for screwing him over and over and over. Drodz’s drum work here cannot be touched by anyone in the world. Can we just anoint him as the best drummer working right now in rock music and have done with it?
But the real emotional impact of the album comes in the next three songs, which are just about as straightforward as the Flaming Lips Philosophy will ever get. “It’s Summertime” is Coyne’s response to Japanese fans who contacted him about a mutual friend’s death; among electronic bird chirps and folk-rock guitar and synthesizer pulses, he tries to reach out to them in the only way he can, by telling them that sometimes inner reflection goes too far: “Look outside / I’m know that you’ll recognize / It’s summertime.”
“Do You Realize” has gotten a lot of write-ups in other reviews, and I can only say that all of them are right to say that this is a deeply hard-hitting emotional song that has brought tears to my eyes virtually every time I’ve played it. We ARE all beautiful, we ARE all floating in space, and we ARE all going to die. Deal with it, and dig it. Love your mortality, come to terms with your insignificance, and quit screwing around and LIVE. When did dude become a Zen master?
We wind down with the sci-fi tale of “All We Have is Now” (Wayne appears to himself and says “quit screwing around and LIVE,” in case we didn’t get that in the last song) and the mellow/freaky instrumental closer, “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia).” It’s quite a ride, and we arrive exhausted.
And we suit up again for the return trip. Which is to say that we hit play again. And again. It’s that kind of album.
The Flaming Lips: http://www.flaminglips.com