oshimi Battles the Pink Robots emerges three years after 1999's critical darling The Soft Bulletin. It is easily the most anticipated record of 2002, and so far, it’s the best.
I’ll start by declaring that Yoshimi is better than its predecessor. If that makes this review invalid in your shining eyes, so be it, but The Soft Bulletin wasn’t flawless. People talk about it like it’s the Beck generation’s Pet Sounds, remembering it as the oasis of a dismal year, in which the next best thing was Blur and the Dismemberment Plan. Fans greeted it with blind adoration and sloppy, drooling praise, but in retrospect, it was a safe record and a sissy move for a musician as talented and potentially brilliant as Wayne Coyne.
Having just made the self indulgent, faux-experimental Zaireeka two years earlier, Coyne was now focused on creating a definitively pop album. He wanted it to sound perfect, and with lush orchestrations, untouchable psychedelic production, and driving guitars; by God, he did it. In this sense, it really was Pet Sounds all over again. Coyne had succeeded, but in concentrating so much on the sound, he chose not to challenge his ability to make people feel. That’s not to say the album was unaffecting. A lot of the time it was fiercely emotional, but instead of inventing new communications, innovating upon pop music rather than emulating its best elements, Coyne retread proven formulas, taking advantage of the established light switches that make the brain of the American fan feel "sad" or "happy" or "inspired." It was a fine album, but hardly risky or evolved enough to be considered a masterwork.
Yoshimi is completely different. At first, it looks like a concept album about a futuristic struggle between Man and Machine, led by a little girl with enough heart to save the entire human race. The idea’s doomed if you take it that way. It’s not interesting, or engaging, or universal. I listened to the album a few times thinking about the songs with this concept in mind, and all it did was alienate and bore me. It felt much nearer, though, when I realized that the concept has nothing to do with a superhero anime character, or a robot, or any of that garbage. It’s about a science fiction fan.
The plot about Yoshimi and her enemies certainly appears to make up the heart of the album. The motifs surface regularly, but most of the lyrics are written from the point of a view of a child, who is watching the story as it unfolds on his television. He’s rooting for Yoshimi every time he mentions her. Maybe he loves her, I don’t know. It’s not really that important, because what the Flaming Lips have here is a portrait of a character that opens up doors to a perfectly meditative and enlightening work. Although it is masked as an allegorical epic about an army of artificially intelligent robots, it is the Flaming Lips’ most personal and introspective album yet. The lyrics are the quiet thoughts of the narrator, nothing more, and beyond the crowd noises that sandwich the first few songs, Yoshimi isn’t really a concept album at all. Thank God.
Wayne Coyne sounds fragile here, like a small child, consistently naive and distant. "What is this?" he pleads on "Are You a Hypnotist," as if he’s emerging from a hibernation that has left him numb and dewy-eyed. This emergence is exactly what this album is about, and with that as its central theme, Yoshimi is light years more powerful than the sprawling, nonspecific adventures that made up The Soft Bulletin. Everyone thought that record was ambitious, but on Yoshimi, Coyne attempts to draw the truths of the universe from a source as tiny and unyielding as the mind of a child. Sure it’s been done before, but no matter. It still sounds ambitious, if only because Coyne succeeds so marvelously.
He starts the first song, "Fight Test," with a lyric that everyone who ever had a childhood in this country can identify with. "I thought there was a virtue in being cool," Coyne sniggers, his voice warm with satisfaction. You can hear the grin spreading across his face as he leaves behind convention and starts over. Just like that, he forgets everything he hated about wherever he was, and opens his eyes to see everything new again. He retreats, and he goes to his room and watches Yoshimi on TV. It makes him happy, and that’s why he does it. "Fight Test" is catharsis, but instead of making you jealous of his ability to forget everything and be himself, Wayne Coyne makes you believe that you have.
I don’t know how much I want to say about the rest of the album’s subject matter. Almost every song has some sort of say in how you feel, by the end. Some of them prime your emotions, setting you up for a let down or a purgative, thundering crash. Others evoke feelings immediately, demanding your attention by seizing control of your entire consciousness. "All we have is now," Coyne pleads. That’s really it, there. He sings it quietly, but the song is screaming urgency, youth, and seizure. "You and me were never meant to be part of the future." It’s this attitude that allowed the Flaming Lips to continue past The Soft Bulletin, and it’s also what makes Yoshimi so captivating.
It would seem that the sci-fi subplot would be a distraction from the bigger elements driving the album. In fact, nothing could really stifle those forces, but on occasion, the pretentiousness of the concept does show itself in unfortunate places. At the beginning of "Do You Realize," for example, one of the best songs on the album, Coyne coos "One, two, three, four!" in a ridiculous, grating tone of voice that has made me cringe every time I’ve heard it. That intro embodies everything that was ever terrible about the Flaming Lips, and the fact that they haven’t gotten past it is disappointing. Aside from that, the song is stunning. It’s a life affirming number, calling for everyone around to wake up just as Wayne has. "Instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast." Coyne demands that we open our eyes. We just have to, because we’re missing something.
Coyne’s lyrics really challenge the rest of the band to match their intensity. Unfortunately, the instrumentation on Yoshimi is not as vibrant or expressive as it could have been. The sounds are all mechanized, made by a computer that couldn’t even make them sound good. Loud moog synths suffocate some of the most beautiful lyrical moments, and uninspired drum machine beats anchor Coyne’s words and drag them along the floor. With some notable exceptions, the instrumentation is predominantly ugly and intimidating, and it lacks the sort of vitality that could have made Yoshimi perfect. Of course, the juxtaposition of the machine-like music and the vocals could be part of the metaphor that the Lips were trying to develop, but frankly, it’s not worth the sacrifice.
None of this matters when you walk away from it, though. The feelings this album stirs inside of you and the thoughts it provokes are all you will remember. This record will change you. It is truly an experience, and it’s a landmark album for Wayne Coyne, who has finally dared himself to find a new way to communicate pop music. The Flaming Lips have done it. A modern masterpiece.
Reviewed by: Leon Neyfakh
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01