When discussing The Flaming Lips’ musical output, many will point to 1999’s excellent The Soft Bulletin as their masterpiece. Their magnum opus. Not me. No, for me The Flaming Lips seminal work comes in the form of the follow up, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
An album, I’ve always thought, is supposed to take you on a journey, supposed to sell you a story. I’ve always considered albums to be not so much a group of tracks stuck together by an artist, but as a body of work that’s there to connect with. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots does it all in spades. It’s an album that’s bafflingly bizarre, beautifully absurd and genuinely moving, all at the same time.
Although not intended to be a concept album, frontman Wayne Coyne said so himself, Yoshimi… does deal in themes. There’s ponderings on humanity and mortality, life and death, love and loss and everything in between. All set to a futuristic, science fiction backdrop, coated in 11 tracks of neo-psychedelic, space rock brilliance.
In truth, the “concept” and story only really appear directly in the album’s opening tracks but it still makes for a fascinating listen.
It begins with a struggle. Coyne’s inner conflict is laid bare, as he wrestles with fear of fight in opening track Fight Test. “I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life/ It’s all a mystery“ over its infectious, buzzing, sweet melody. It’s intensely personal, yet, in the context of the album, absurdly alien.
One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21, with its glitchy funk, reverberating vocals and surging mechanical clicks and beeps, sees us emphasising with the cold, soul-less barrenness of robotic entities. “Unit 3000-21 is warming/makes a humming sound when its circuits duplicate emotions” Coyne sings over a simple bass and ambient buzzing, that slowly emerge into dizzying bursts of whizzing clockwork like machinery.
We’re introduced to our heroine for the first time in the album’s title track, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Part 1), as she prepares to do battle with an army of salmon tinted robotic overlords. The mechanical clicks and beeps return, this time joined by a simple guitar line and Coyne’s croaked vocals. “Yoshimi, they don’t believe me, but you won’t let those robots defeat me” he sings in the chorus, as he conducts his own vocal battle with some sort of android, farting out rhythmic burps of synth. Those burps continue into part 2, as our hero enters battle in a chaotic instrumental that mixes blood curling screams and triumphant cheers with a bustling wall of furry synth.
The album continues its existential questioning throughout. “What is love and what is hate, and why does it matter” Coyne ponders in the slick In The Morning Of The Magicians, while Ego Tripping At The Gates of Hell sees our protagonist cursing missed opportunities that never really presented themselves.
The album’s centrepieces, however, come in the form of two poignant moments of simplistic beauty. In Do You Realize??, a song which Coyne has since described as being like “some magic thing we discovered in Antarctica“, bursts with joyful fragility. Lyrics like “Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die?” could strike as depressing, if it weren’t for their strikingly vulnerable delivery. All We Have Is Now, meanwhile, communicates the importance of living in the moment, over a mesmerising pallet of sound.
By the time the instrumental distant warbles, firing lasers and triumphant trumpets of closing track Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia) have drifted into nothingness, you feel like you’ve been washed over by beguiling whirrs of tenderness on a journey through human emotion.
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is an album that’s bold, inventive, daft as a brush and as serious as hell. More importantly, it’s an album that reminds you what it’s like to feel. And that feels wonderful.
words by George Shaw