Many devout Flaming Lips fans might be already finding themselves casting doleful glances towards the cheeky antics of the group’s earlier albums, before the time of heated disagreements and middle-age-crisis tomfoolery from the band’s maverick frontman, Wayne Coyne. Fortunately, the old Flaming Lips aren’t that hard to find. One has to look no farther than 2009′s Embryonic, a messy, sprawling, wonderful double album that saw the band embracing spontaneity, crafting towering psychedelic anthems from the slightest of foundations.
Looking back on their career, though they were often more rigorously structured than Embryonic in terms of their compositions, they always seemed eager to discover new modes of expression for themselves, happily jettisoning a perfected sound for something novel and risky. They departed from the alt rock game as cult favorites following the release of 1995′s Clouds Taste Metallic, only to come back with the polarizing experimental album Zaireeka, a collection of space rock soundscapes that required four CD players in order to get the complete experience. Quite a gamble, but even at this point the band’s devout followers had learned to accept their propensity for reckless innovation, their desire to create new modes of musical expression and consumption that could just as easily be written off as trite novelty.
Not that being dismissed by critics would bother the Flaming Lips. Everything they’ve done in the past three decades has been in adherence to a vision known to nobody but themselves, an improvised metanarrative that was never intended to please any sort of audience. The Soft Bulletin’s delicate psych pop might be seen as a cheap regression if it was released by any other noisy alt rock band. Though it’s a great record in its own right, the taut chamber-pop compositions could be perceived as ‘selling out.’ But for these guys selling out is all part of the ride. Appearing in a Honda commercial during the Super Bowl, it seems, is just as important to them as creating transcendental prog rock epics (or recreating transcendental prog rock epics with Henry Rollins and Peaches).
And yet, there’s something present in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that seems to be missing from their late-period exposition. It, along with The Soft Bulletin, seem to be the only two albums in their eclectic discography where wide-eyed naivety and poignant truths are seated comfortably together. These days, The Flaming Lips do their best to keep these two worlds separate: the austere monotony of The Terror has little to do with the Wayne Coyne of 2013, the Wayne Coyne who snorts coke with Ke$ha and releases 24-hour songs on flash drives embedded within gummy skulls. This radical dichotomy doesn’t exist on Yoshimi. As a result, you get a sort-of concept album that’s kind of about a Japanese lady crusading against pink robots, and also a powerful musing on mortality and human emotion. Why not both, right?
In a way, the record eases us into the weighty topics by sedating us with polished, ridiculously catchy electro pop tunes. ‘Flight Test’ leads into the album with a breezy swirl of squelching and tinkling synths, the propellant drum machine and acoustic guitar creating the ambiance of a brightly colored children’s cartoon. ‘One More Robot/Sympathy 3001-21′ sounds cold and welcoming at the same time, the tale of a heartless robot emulating emotion backed by a skittering toy bass and gentle piano. Yoshimi’s story is introduced, and mainly resolved in this first stretch of songs. It’s simple premise is laid out in a wonderfully matter-of-fact manner on ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1′, the lyrics of which were improvised on the spot by Wayne Coyne (the name Yoshimi refers to Yoshimi P-We, the longtime drummer for Boredoms, who was a session player on this album).
The album’s protagonist, who works for the city, is entrusted to defeat a legion of evil natured robots, who is programmed to destroy them. I lifted chunks of that almost verbatim from the song’s lyrics; such is the lucidity of the story’s early moments. We get a kindhearted protagonist who we can root for, and a group of consummate baddies to draw our ire. Yet when the lyrics grow more insular in the album’s second half, it retains the same lyrical voice. Moving expressions of universal human insecurities are delivered in the form of innocent singalongs and goofy high-pitched count-ins (as is the case with the existential anthem ‘Do You Realize?’). The consistency in narrative voice is what really sells the concept-album theory; it almost feels like Yoshimi herself is relating the story to us, fervently weaving a tale of evil robots, a courageous hero, and their innermost motivations, while giving each of these things equal credence.
Though The Soft Bulletin introduced the notion of the Flaming Lips as psych pop confetti shooters (and At War With the Mystics extended the sound further, to disappointingly lukewarm results) Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the middle LP in what seems to be an informal trilogy of pop albums, is where they really nailed that particular approach. Apart from the songwriting itself, which is marvelous, the incorporation and utilization of various instruments is a huge factor in Yoshimi’s success. Dozens of disparate sounds are heaped onto each track, everything from electronic strings to somber, cutting guitar. As with the lyrics, the uniformity of the voicing is what validates every one of those quirky little sound effects. The production is impeccably fluid, making every noise sound completely inseparable from the next one, like they were both generated from the same jovial alien synthesizer. Nothing sounds unnecessary or out of place. The oscillating bass note and twittering bird call at the beginning of ‘It’s Summertime’ seem to organically flow into the lurching, pensive chorus, predicting its approach and introducing an oral motif that wraps itself beautifully around the rest of the song.
It’s unsurprising that Embryonic’s improvisational approach worked so well; after all, they had begun to perfect it almost a decade before, albeit in sound rather than methodology. The arrangements on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are a rare feat, a work so meticulously constructed that it gives off the illusion of spontaneity. Most albums that overemphasize numerous carefully laid parts sound awfully labored, a soup of arduously integrated sound bites struggling for dominance underneath bland, sterilized production. But the Flaming Lips found a way to reconcile improvisation and forethought, simply by being incredibly good at choosing and manipulating sounds. In short, they just make it look easy—the arrangements are designated with such confidence and ease that they seem to have found their way directly from Wayne Coyne’s head to the listener’s ears, with minimal interference from the real, boring world.
Though nobody knew it at the time, there was no inherent risk associated with the Flaming Lips going pop. Considering their strengths, pop is probably the ideal genre for them, stressing approachable melody and lush harmonization. But who could have anticipated one of the best albums of the past 25 years emerging from this divergent genre switch-up? Not even the Flaming Lips could have known. But they probably had a slight inkling that a memorable story, combined with universal sentiments and flawless arrangements, would combine to form a record that would charm innumerable music fans. And, even if it had of flopped, it still would have made the Flaming Lips happy.