The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Warner Bros.

I had finally had enough of the jewel cases cluttering my room. So right before I moved away for college, I invested in a multi-disc changer — more specifically, one that would hold 110 albums. This I figured would alleviate my space problems, and, for a time, it did. But now, I’ve easily got upwards of 500 CDs. So I’m pretty much back to square one. CD cases are everywhere and, if anything, I’m spending more time in front of the player now. There’s more turnover than I ever had with my single-disc changer because back then I could only change one a time. Now whenever I approach the CD player, 10 or 15 come out and the same number go back in so that, theoretically, the player always holds my 110 favorite albums.

Keeping my changer up to date with my taste has been strenuous. There have, however, been a few CDs that have made my life easier — ones that have never been removed since the day they entered. There are a few scattered throughout, but most reside in the first 10 slots. And you don’t just get to the top 10 by accident. No, the album has to prove its staying power, which usually requires a month or two of exposure. I have to decide whether or not I’ll be listening to the album frequently enough for it to warrant such a placing. However, The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips’ masterpiece from 1999, wasted no time convincing me of its brilliance. It has been lodged at the #3 spot since about a week after I brought it home from the record store three years ago. That’s about the most effective way I can think of to demonstrate my love for the album.

What was ingenious about The Soft Bulletin was Wayne’s undeniable understanding of a pop tune. If you mentally strip the songs of all their window-dressing (admittedly, not an easy thing to do), what you’re left with are hooks that wouldn’t be out of place on a Prince or Michael Jackson record. (Not so coincidentally, Coyne recruited former Jackson and Prince collaborator, Peter Mokran, to remix two of the albums most commercially-viable cuts.) While the song lyrics and choice of instrumentation might be strange, there’s nothing odd about the basic song frameworks. In fact, I’d venture to say that Wayne was going for a pure pop record — and the only things that stopped him short were his own vocal limitations and the Lips unshakable psychedelic bent.

Still, in my universe, The Soft Bulletin was a timeless pop classic. For all its weirdness, it sported a surprisingly lucid sense of melody. Even the most heavy-handed attempts at sonic perversion — such as the kick drum clatter on “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” or the cricket noises on “Sleeping on the Roof” — couldn’t conceal the pure pop centers of the songs. Not surprisingly, it’s these ever-present hooks that made The Soft Bulletin such a monumental achievement as well as an album that endured repeated listens. The Lips, I imagine, even shocked themselves, since there’s nothing over the course of their career, except for occasional fragments, to suggest that they had the ability or willingness to confine their oddities to the boundaries of pop.

So what is a band to do to successfully follow-up such a critic-proof masterpiece? The answer, arriving in the form of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, is not much. The press has made a big deal of Yoshimi‘s stripped-down ambience, its reliance on acoustic as opposed to electric guitars, and of Coyne’s growing fascination with the synthetic. Electronic blips and gurgles stand right alongside Coyne’s wistful croon. But really, not much has changed since the last outing. Sure, these songs sound more spacious — less stuffed with disparate ideas, but the basic pop-tunes-from-Mars aesthetic remains the same. And that, to my ears, is precisely the problem.

Part of what always attracted me to the Lips was their willingness to go for broke. Buying a Lips album was, in a sense, subscribing to the notion that creativity still had a place an industry increasingly driven by the bottom line. After all, what other band recorded a song titled “Pilot Can at the Queer of God”, turned their live shows into car stereo symphonies, and convinced their record label to release a batch of songs that could only be heard properly if four CD players were playing simultaneously? Plunking down money for the Lips was a way of saying that creativity did still matter and that it would be duly rewarded.

But somehow, the ideal seems a bit faded on Yoshimi. Granted, the Lips can still be innovative, but for perhaps the first time in their storied career, their creativity feels familiar and predictable. That doesn’t mean that Yoshimi is short on stunningly gorgeous songs. “Flight Test”, “In the Morning of the Magicians”, and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1” all check in on that count. But on the whole, these songs feel safe — at least too safe for a band that staked their career on not taking a careerist approach to making music. Yoshimi sounds like an album that was made not because the Lips had something new to say, but rather because that’s what bands do to capitalize on a successful run.

The lyric sheet is even more disappointing. Coyne has always balanced precariously between the profound and the absurd. Unfortunately, the scales tip in favor of the latter on this release. Coyne’s childlike naïveté too often comes across as simplemindedness. It’s hard to appreciate the cinematic splendor of “Do You Realize??” when Coyne is delivering lines like, “Do you realize — that you have the most beautiful face / Do you realize — that happiness makes you cry.” I will say that Coyne’s pitch has noticeably improved. He no longer strains to the hit high notes or goes out of key at inopportune times. Vocally at least, Yoshimi may be the Lips strongest album to date.

Yet a fine vocal performance isn’t really enough to salvage an otherwise redundant disc. Yoshimi isn’t bad, but it just seems as though the Lips are mistaking acoustic guitars and staccato drumming for genuine change. More importantly, the hooks that made The Soft Bulletin warm and inviting are conspicuously absent. Even the requisite genius production work from Dave Fridmann can’t mask the shortcomings — although he does certainly make the journey more enjoyable. I can only hope that this album doesn’t represent a trend. Perhaps Coyne was just too distracted by his budding film career to devote enough attention to the album. Either way, I’d be surprised if Yoshimi isn’t lost in the stack of jewel cases before the month is out.