Assistant Layout Editor
I think it’s safe to say that the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne is a genius, equal parts Thomas Edison and P.T. Barnum. Like Edison, Coyne is a relentless tinkerer, a visionary experimenter with a sci-fi fetish and a soft spot for odd technologies. And like Barnum, Coyne is a consummate showman – the hand puppets, the boom box orchestras, the oddball short films, the radio-controlled headphones. In 1984, Coyne was just another Oklahoma dreamer with an amateurish psych-rock garage band and a duffel bag stuffed with thrift-store effects pedals; eighteen years later, Coyne finds himself in the position of following up one of the most universally regarded albums since Pet Sounds.
So let’s just come right out and say it: after the one-two punch of Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is a bold and inventive work, brimming with ideas and sublime moments of brilliance. But it’s also unfocused and top-heavy, a concept album about robots and karate that, somewhere along the line, strays into languorous, contemplative songs about mortality and death. Nor does Yoshimi always put the Lips’ best foot forward. Though Dave Fridmann’s production dazzles, the overdriven drums and orchestral swoons that characterized The Soft Bulletin are often lost in a busy mesh of programmed beats and lazy synth strings.
The album gets off to a rollicking start with the winning “Fight Test,” a glossy rumination on the call to duty – whether that’s standing up to a playground bully or, as the Lips would have it, an army of rebellious androids bent on world domination. “If it’s not now, then tell me when would be the time that you would stand up and be a man?” Coyne sings over a thick buzz of keyboards, bass and an almost hip-hop rhythm, offsetting his resolve in the refrain: “I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life / It’s all a mystery.” It’s a stunning pop song – easily this album’s “Waitin’ for a Superman” – with an intensely memorable melody and the conflict of Coyne’s internal dialogue resonating positively on many levels.
Yoshimi takes its first left turn with “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” a slippery detour into glitch augmented with falsetto choruses, reverberating vocals and haywire surges of digital clicking. “Unit 3000-21 is warming / Makes a humming sound when its circuits duplicate emotions,” Coyne sings over a simple bass figure and ambient tones before the song explodes in a burst of overdriven clockwork. It’s a dizzying, disorienting sound – but once the novelty wears off, you’ve got to admit it sounds a bit like Steely Dan.
“Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Part 1)” rides a simple melody and ridiculously infectious beat as it sets the stage for the album’s short-lived ‘concept’ – some entertaining nonsense about an army of Japanese girls training to take on the salmon-hued robots at a kung-fu compound right out of Enter the Dragon. In the chorus, Coyne plays call-and-response with a malevolent synth burble that sounds like a malevolent R2-D2. Its rollercoaster companion, “Yoshimi (Part 2),” scales a slinky, ascending wall of synth and distant Japanese babble before the bottom falls out, rocketing into chaotic instrumental breakdowns each a shade more intense than the last. It’s the closest the Lips have come to writing straight video game music, complete with crowd noises and bloodcurdling screams (courtesy of the Boredoms’ Yoshimi Yokota).
And this is where Yoshimi makes its first misstep, on the sleepy “In the Morning of Magicians.” Though punctuated with bursts of instrumental energy, the arrangement quickly devolves into a thick lite-FM syrup. “What is love and what is hate, and why does it matter?” Coyne wonders over a flitty symphony of Muzak strings. Again, the production is flawless – I especially dig the wavering tape-speed fluctuations on the background vocals – but the song throws the album into a downbeat, overly philosophical malaise from which it never fully recovers. What happened to Yoshimi again? Pink robots… what pink robots?
Yoshimi shines again with the superior “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” which pits more existential lyrics over a far more satisfying collage of sounds (vocal samples, snippets of mellotron, a lumbering bass). “I was waiting on a moment, but the moment never came,” croons Coyne, echoing the issues of readiness and bravery “Fight Test” raised, but also betraying Yoshimi’s greatest weakness: the moment never comes.
The closest the Lips do come is on the divine, “Are You a Hypnotist?” if only for the brief return of some actual drums (brilliantly tracked to create some glitchy, idiosyncratic fills impossible to play in real life). Coyne indulges in wordplay such as, “I have forgiven you for tricking me again / But I have been tricked again / Into forgiving you,” as the song builds to a distorted swell of fuzzy static and some otherworldly choir.
“Do You Realize” buzzes and clangs with overproduction, as Coyne breezes through a list of trite observations like, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” and, “Let them know you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last.” Its parallels with Mike + The Mechanics’ “The Living Years” are uncanny, and believe me, it hurts me more to say that about a Flaming Lips’ song than it does you to read it. The already unsubtle onslaught of church bells, woozy background harmonies and strings ascends into supreme levels of cheese with not one, but two key changes midway through, becoming a near-parody of the genuine emotional weight that carried The Soft Bulletin.
The minor-key Beatleisms of “It’s Summertime (Throbbing Orange Pallbearers)” are wasted on more childlike philosophizing: “Look outside / I know that you’ll recognize it’s summertime.” After the grandiose, symphonic universalisms of The Soft Bulletin, could it be this record’s deepest message is “stop and smell the roses?”
Apparently so, as the self-explanatory “All We Have Is Now” revisits these themes for a third time, albeit with an uncharacteristically fragile beauty. All of this might have some ironic poignancy if, god forbid, Coyne were to be diagnosed with some terminal illness tomorrow (and indeed, the latter half of Yoshimi was reportedly inspired by the death of a Japanese fan). But in the context of this album, Yoshimi simply runs out of emotional punch, having expended its boldest moves and most resonant sentiments in the first five songs.
Bafflingly, Yoshimi ends with “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia),” an anticlimactic instrumental punctuated with distant vocal warbling, laser-beam bursts and sudden fanfares of trumpet. It didn’t have to be this way, judging from the wealth of stronger material widely traded online by net-savvy Lips’ fans. The evocative “The Switch That Turns Off the Universe” (previewed in a 1999 BBC session) would seem to be a perfect fit with Yoshimi’s cautionary tales of techno-doom. Or better yet, the Yoshimi outtake “If I Go Mad/Funeral In My Head” (now set to appear as a single b-side), an instant Lips’ classic in which Coyne seemingly conjures rainstorms, orchestras and deafening applause on command.
Despite this album’s disappointing brevity (45 minutes, padded with two instrumentals), its dense production and well-crafted melodies offer long-term replay-ability. Moments like the Coyne-as-robot “I’ll get you, Yoshimi” barely audible in the title track, or the interchangeable “I must have been drifting” / “I must have been tripping” background vocals in “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell” seem tailor-made for bull sessions around the alien-head bong.
Though Yoshimi could be considered guilty of adhering too strictly to a tried-and-true formula (fast beats, slow melodies), it’s really the more disparate elements that keep this album from building emotionally into a classic. And so, like a double feature of Drunken Master and Terms of Endearment, or a surprise party where the surprise is that your best friend is sick, ultimately Yoshimi is kind of a bummer