June 20th, 2012
First the title: as far as Flaming Lips album names go, the band hits a sweet spot with this one. Whereas previous titles like In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Transmissions from the Satellite Heart have a bit of a corny aftertaste and ones like Telepathic Surgery and Clouds Taste Metallic are overly acid-fried, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots touches on a combination of the cutesy and the absurd that strikes a charming harmony between the look and the sound of the album.
The cover’s image is one that suits the childlike fantasy of the album title, and the assumed odds of the imminent battle give its soft hewn edges an even more romantic fuzz. The girl in the image, who I assume is Yoshimi, stands poised and elegant against a lumbering giant — blood stains the walls and she stands partly consumed by a grave shadow. Still, the robot, with its goofy four-legged, er… legs, and shriveled T. Rex arms, has a playfulness in spite of emotionless yellow-eyed visage. Everything is a mixed signal, including the opening track “Fight Test“, whose bouncy circus synths constant try to overtake the themes of celestial mystique and regret but never quite do.
Yoshimi’s first proper appearance in this album is in part one of the title track, whose sound approximates an acoustic ballad with loads of freak beats and found sounds piled on top — which, it could be argued, is also a good description of most of the Lips’ best songs. Another hallmark of the sound is the crack of frontman Wayne Coyne’s boyish tenor. “She’s gotta be strong to fight them / So she’s taking lots of vitamins,” Coyne sings in the second verse, marking this and every simple lyric into a charmingly innocent declaration. The stakes outlined in the tune, however, are constantly hinted as being much higher than in a imaginary fight. When Coyne sings, “They’re programmed to destroy us,” a little earlier in the same verse, it’s the “us” that points to a worldwide/species-wide threat. It’s a pronoun that’s believable in the context of fantasy, but it’s also a strange change from the rest of the song, which is largely Yoshimi-centric.
The last time I saw the Flaming Lips live, Coyne confirmed the inklings I had, mentioning in so many words that the song was about a dear friend who was fighting cancer, adding that she had also passed away since it was written. Cancer is an issue that plagues humankind without compassion (much like evil pink robots would), and its inclusion in the story arc obviously dampens the mood no matter how black belts Yoshimi holds.
The theme continues with “Do You Realize??”, a track whose sunshine/moonchild face emerges immediately in the Moody Blues-like synth strings and spaced-out reverb surrounding Coyne’s vocals. I don’t always like to include the single as a representative track for an album, but in this case, the achingly bittersweet lines of “Do You Realize??” embody everything the album does with conflicted emotions in the most direct and poignant way. The standout line in this track, for example, is shockingly bold in light of the instrumentation: “Do you realize / That everyone you know someday will die?” I remember the first time I heard this song, I laughed out loud at how ridiculously pessimistic this one phrase was, thinking that it had to be nothing more than lyrical trolling by the fearless freaks. But then, I heard Coyne, bathed in celestial reverb, say, “You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ’round,” and suddenly felt the kind of cosmic enlightenment the band was undoubtedly trying to inspire.
Every thesis has its antithesis. As my philosophy professors would have said, the conflict of the two give birth to a synthesis — a new idea that thrives off the strengths of both of its parts. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots seems to take this idea in stride and comes up with something beautiful that pushes at boundaries and constantly challenges emotional intellect. It’s easy enough to witness the dynamic within the album, but trying to pinpoint exactly what it is might be an impossible task. As for hints or clues, the biggest one might just be in plain sight on the front cover — written in Japanese script above the band’s name is the lyric: “Happiness can make you cry.”
Artist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)
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