One of my favourite bands are The Flaming Lips. I consider them to be one of the most vital and creative forces in music right now – have been for a number of years, too. They divide folks I know though; some agreeing that they are incredible and others saying they just don’t get it. I don’t think I know many who are on the fence (that being said, I’ve learned over the years that everyone has at least one of their albums. Most likely it’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots). Anyway, I find that they continue to evolve with each album. Pushing their own sense of being and continuing to challenge the listener. To challenge what music is. What art is. I think that right there is why I continue to follow them. Even when they flirt dangerously close to the abyss. Despite the missteps, they remain a truly marvellous band with a truly wondrous and charming front-man.
I got into The Flaming Lips big time when I heard The Soft Bulletin in the summer of 1999. An album that just blew my mind. It’s quite rightly considered by many as their masterpiece – full of crashing overdriven drums, creative instrumentation, a wall of sonics, imaginative production, dreamy melodies and emotional weight. The question: how do you follow something like that? Well, for Wayne & Co. the answer was to embrace electronics and focus on the swooning and often dizzying instrumentation. I was late picking up Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but the few folks I knew that dug them said it was the greatest thing they’d heard. A sentiment echoed by much of the music press that I’d spotted reviews in at the time. The contemplative songs about mortality remain, but they’re thrown in with some stuff about evil natured robots and a young girl named Yoshimi. It’s surrounded by glitches, reverberating falsettos and dizzying distorted digital … eh … pyrotechnic splendour. But was it, as Uncut declared, “astonishing” and the greatest album released in the magazine’s lifetime?
I got my copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots from my brother. He gave me it to start off my collection when he gave me the record player. There’s a few pops and some surface noise, but it still sounds really wonderful. Lush and warm. When I finally got my hands on a new stylus and pre-amp I got that sucker hooked up and got the album spinning. Twice. Back to back. Just like I did when I first got my hands on the CD. Just finding myself lost in the grooves. Each beep, crunch, and swoosh vital. Even the little bit of surface noise and the pops sounding like part of the album. A pulse. A heartbeat.
The album opens with Fight Test – a coming of age tale that caused them a whole lot of bother with Cat Stevens. Truth be told, as much as I like Father and Son, I can never relate to that sucker the way I could this. Despite all the awesomeness to come on Side 1, it’s One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21 that really gets me. A really tremendous bass run and a looped drum kick drill a hole as Coyne sings “Unit 3000-21 is warming – makes a humming sound when its circuits duplicate emotions”. Perhaps inspired by Short Circuit’s Johnny 5? but it pre-dates Wall-E by a good couple of years. Although there’s not a great deal more to it (other than the tremendous closing minute of so when the acoustic guitar features), I just can’t see past it. It’s utterly marvellous. And I don’t care what anyone says. It’s the same with In the Morning of the Magicians. Simple and effective. I dare say both of these could have complimented the The Soft Bulletin.
Side Two is kinda strange and is a mixed listen. Coyne continues exploring those same themes and there’s a weight behind it that’s lost within the concept of Side One. With the robots long gone (thanks Yoshimi!), the mood changes and the textures get a little less glitchy and a little more lush. Are You a Hypnotist? is a take on that whole ‘fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice’ shenanigans. Coyne throws it out differently though – “are you some kind of hypnotist waving your powers around?”. Never thought to use that line, so well played. In fact, Side Two it’s all about asking questions, and the most important one of all is wrapped up in Do You Realise? and All We Have Is Now. Life moves fast, people. Don’t get caught waiting around – live it and make the most of it. The closing Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia) is really pretty wonderful, too.
I guess it would be wrong not to mention the title track (well, part one), given it’s likely the song most folks would associate with the band. Ridiculously wonderful in every way you could imagine. It bounces along quite nicely as Yoshimi is introduced. It’s brilliant. Preposterous, even. Part 2 is the chaos. An instrumental breakdown that represents the battle. Complete with screams and crowd cheering. You go for it, Yoshimi! You done it! And that’s it, really. We never hear from the Pink Robots or Yoshimi again.
Even now. It’s a great listen – not their best, but it’s still a pretty great record.