Album review: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) by The Flaming Lips

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The original album cover (middle) was drawn by vocalist Wayne Coyne

Rating: 4.5/5

A strange and finely crafted masterpiece. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is an unintended concept album that tells the story of one Japanese woman’s battle with cancer. It is unintended, in that the band did not set out with any story in mind when they began recording for the album, it just ended up playing out that way. Around the time the band began recording together with a new album in mind, a friend of theirs was recording in Austin, Texas — the next state over to where the Flaming Lips formed and made their debut in 1983. Her name was Yoshimi P-We, from the band The Boredoms. They joined her and her band in Austin, and it was a recording of her scream (heard in ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 2’) that inspired visions of a Japanese woman battling giant machines in singer and guitarist Wayne Coyne’s mind. The band had also lost a friend to illness some time before this — also Japanese — and her death inspired them to write a song in her memory. Eventually, a forty-seven and a half minute fusion of electronic, orchestral psychedelia and indie rock was born, on the Warner Bros. label, July 2002.

Track one, ‘Fight Test’, is a slow roasted indie jam with a half-borrowed recipe. It’s a song about regret, and the all too familiar feeling of having to face up to something difficult, which in this case is fighting over a girl. In 2003 it was agreed that the song bore a striking resemblance to Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf Islam) 1970’s song ‘Father and Son’, and a settlement was reached between Sony/ATV Music Publicity and EMI Records. The Lips now receive 25 per cent of the royalites for ‘Fight Test’, and Stevens gets the rest. Setting all of this aside, the song doesn’t try to be complex, or present you with the full force of the Lips’ experimental capabilities. It’s a great, simple melodic tribute to avoidance.

There is an augmented vibe that ties the whole album together, as a way of illustrating the mecha universe that acts as the stage for Yoshimi’s battle with disease. Unit 3000–21 opens its eyes in ‘One More Robot/Sympathy 3000–21’, and in the background of some strangely happy sounding lyrics about a robot developing emotive capabilities, there is a constant flow of glitchy radio fuzz, and those augmented vibes and sounds that prevent any of these tracks from falling into the pop realm. Towards the end of 3000–21’s bouncing story, these monotone noises are the only things left and they bring us back to the uncertainty that surrounds Yoshimi and her future.

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Probably one of the better known and most celebrated tracks on the album, ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots: Pt. 1’ is a party for the main woman herself. It’s the most concept-like song on the album, introducing us to the kung-fu master and her mission to defeat the giant pink robots and save all of humanity. The giant pink robots are a symbol for her cancer, and the humanity she is trying to save is her own existence. The song opens with an acoustic strumming and Wayne’s voice lifting over these very chilled out melodic phrases, while the chorus brings back the agumented robot gurgles behind the bands hopeful words of encouragement. Then we’re brought to a different kind of party in ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots: Pt. 2’. The entourage has moved out into the streets, and Yoshimi’s parade party makes contact with the giant robots, in a loud, cymbal crashing, rumbling confrontation that reaches its climax with Yoshimi’s penetrative shrieking (courtesy of Yoshimi P-We). And then the crowd cheers.

This is where Yoshimi says goodbye, and we don’t hear from her again for the rest of the album. ‘In the Morning of the Magicians’ is a very downbeat departure from the previous track, and it presents itself as the philosophical musings of an ethereal stoner — “what is love and what is hate/ and why does it matter?’’. The orchestra is the glue that keeps this song together, with the sweeping violins, the rhythmic heartbeat drums and the ascending flute allowing us to forgive the cheesiness of this floaty philosopher. The orchestration of the album is fantastic, and I don’t think Yoshimi is entirely forgotten just yet — behind the instruments you can still hear the augmented wave forms and robot motifs that keep us anchored to Yoshimi’s narrative.

Coyne’s voice fades in and out of ‘Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell’, lamenting a moment that never happened, “but your love it never came’’. We’re brought back to the acoustic strumming that compliments the flying robot ships, zipping in and out of existence in the background to some of the most spacey orchestration on the album. “I must have been tripping/ just ego tripping’’ — I’m not sure what this story has to do with our dying Yoshimi, but it’s a seamless piece of music that demonstrates the Lips’ talent for maintaining a groove.

Yoshimi reaches peak mystery in ‘Are you a Hypnotist??’. The otherworldly choir, and the drum kicks that gave us something to celebrate in ‘Yoshimi: Pt. 1’ give the impression that the clouds are parting on Yoshimi’s illness (if she is even part of the album any more), or at least the impression that we are being brought to place where we haven’t been before. “I thought that I recognised your face amongst all those strangers’’… “what is this?/ are you some kind of hypnotist/ waving your powers around?’’. We aren’t told any more than this, and the song ends with an ascending choir into the unknown.

‘Do you Realise?’ is a righteous celebration of death. “Do you realise that every one you know some day will die?/ And instead of saying all of your goodbyes/ let them know you realise that life goes fast/ It’s hard to make the good things last’’. It’s in this song that orchestral strings bring the album to its swelling climax, in the midst of a series of church bells, acoustic one liners, and choir harmonies that all lump on top of each other will almost zero robotic gurgling. If you listen closely to what’s going on in the most far away part of the background, there’s a gentle echo tapping a rhythm behind Coyne’s voice. This song was written in memory of a friend and fan of the band, who died suddenly prior to the album being made, and to be honest I would have been satisfied if the album ended right here.

Album art, inside

There has been a coherent, semi-consistent theme running through the album thus far that reinforces the artistry and style of the record. ‘It’s Summertime’ doesn’t quite fit, and it sounds as if it came from a different album. For a brief time the introduction gels well, but the shift into a minor motif doesn’t do anything for the song, and the guitar sequence half way through sounds like The Flaming Lips circa 1993 — which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just out of place here. The penultimate track, ‘All We Have is Now’, is another morbidly beautiful tale about the fragility of life. We are again reminded that the Flaming Lips are extremely skilled storytellers and songwriters; “As logic stands/ you couldn’t meet a man who’s from the future/ but logic broke/ as he appeared he spoke about the future/ We’re not going to make it/ He explained how the end will come/ You and me were never meant to be/ part of the future’’. We hear more about this man from the future, with distorted twirls of synthesizers and guitar twangs guiding us through the narrative. The song is steady and doesn’t climb as high as the others, and the orchestra trails away with the final lyrics of the album.

The final track is an instrumental glide through the sounds of trumpets, strings, harp, lasers and drums. There’s a distinctly Pink Floydesque vocal warbling throughout ‘Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planetia)’, reminisicent of Clare Torry in ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’. The trumpets and the harp bring us away from this likeness, and the song is over in a heartbeat.

The finale of the album is disappointing when you compare it to the heights of the notes we reached in the first half. There are moments, like in ‘It’s Summertime’ and in ‘All We Have is Now’, where I was led to wonder about the reasons behind the band’s decision to include these tracks in the album. The lyrics sometimes veer into some dodgy philosophical clichés, and I was saddened by the disappearance of Yoshimi after track four. The saving grace of the album that pulls the rug out from under these criticisms is the flawless orchestration that gives Yoshimi life. The choice of instrumentation for the album — the strings, the trumpets, the church bells, the harp, the strumming acoustic guitar, the lasers, and the robotic bleeps and synth waves — all merge to form a body of sound that is the identity of the album. It’s Yoshimi. The music is enjoyable and extremely replayable, and the band holds our attention with their quirky storytelling. In 2012 the album was adapted for the theatre, under the direction of Des McAnuff, who also directed a theatre adaptation of The Who’s Tommy. Its reviews suffer from the same critique as the album; the concept fades away too quickly, which in the theatre world is a much more obvious, and harmful thing. This is an album for the theatre of the mind, where the disappearance of Yoshimi and her story gives the listener creative control over the outcome of her battle with the deadly pink robots — another unintended gift from the band.

This is a review of a physical copy of the album. Each week I buy an album from my local record store, Head, and put it up for review. The purpose is to both review music, and to inspire readers to venture forth into music stores and pick up a copy themselves. Collecting music is great, but buying music is just plain fabulous. Support your local record stores, because life is so much sweeter when they’re around.

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