The Road to Mecha


Scientists at the World Economic Forum predicted on Friday a grim future replete with unprecedented biological threats, global warming and the possible takeover of humans by robots. —Reuters, February 1, 2002

Not to worry. The Flaming Lips have also seen the future, and her name is Yoshimi, a black-belt Japanese tyro who single-handedly vanquishes a battalion of flesh-eating androids pursuing world domination. Despite their rosy hues and emotion-duping circuits, the cybernauts of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots weren’t built for empathic proto-humanity, which has proved the curse of mechas from the poet Jed of Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump (who wrote plaintive verse about waking up wasted in a park and later drank himself to death) to the perma-child David in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (abandoned shrieking in a slithy forest by the dissatisfied customer he calls Mommy). These pinkos, it’s true, do feel “a synthetic kind of love,” frontman Wayne Coyne explains, perhaps on the order of Spielberg’s Gigolo Joe or Bowie’s cuckold-making TVC15, and as Coyne points out judiciously (channeling Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go”), “It’s hard to say what’s real.”

But as Dubya might assert, it’s not a leader’s job to nuance. Enter born warrior Yoshimi, a vitamin-popping civil servant (voiced by the Boredoms’ own Yoshimi) who flings a monkey wrench into the man-machinery of mass destruction: a smackdown represented by kamikaze shrieking, burbling synth splatter, and Steven Drozd’s demolition-derby drums on “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2.” Our heroine is such an effective dispenser of infinite justice, in fact, that she short-circuits an ostensible concept album’s concept. The titular war has been anticipated, fought, and won by the end of track four. Post-armistice, the dazed, dovish Coyne & co. (who file their regretful apologia for conscientious objection on the opener, “Fight Test”) rise to lysergic matins and wondrous oh-oh-ohs on “In the Morning of the Magicians.” They lifted up the sun, the privilege has been won, the limits now are none. The Soft Bulletin II has begun.

Like its magnificent predecessor, the latter two-thirds of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Oklahoma trio’s 10th LP, seeks to cast a dizzy spell of contact highs: newborn love, looming mortality, the ineffable blindsiding beauty of a given summer’s day. The existential headrush often results in sequel fatigue, but perhaps the Lips are still as bedazzled by their last go-round as the rest of us. Bulletin‘s tragicomic pop-historical sweep, made possible by evocative sad-scientist tropes and piezoelectric arrangements, reached vertiginous heights only hinted at in past recordings. (Another possible distraction: their Coyne-directed feature, Christmas on Mars, which has been described as It’s a Wonderful Life set in a space station.)

Bulletin was composed under the shadow of Coyne’s father’s death from cancer; Yoshimi too is touched by grief. In the spring of 2000, the group began receiving a series of semi-decipherable, badly translated e-mails from the sisters of a friend in Osaka. Some time passed before they were able to figure out that she had sickened and died from a heart ailment. Coyne writes of the slow realization, “It came a drip at a time—never a rush of the unthinkable—it came as a gentle devastation.” Directly addressed to their friend’s sisters, “It’s Summertime” is a knowingly hapless attempt at consolation, bathed in an amniotic wash of rippling beats and tender guitar arpeggios like a hand rubbing your back. Even more gorgeous is the next song and first single, “Do You Realize?”, which spins super furry rings around the world while church bells chime, Drozd’s drums wreak ecstatic havoc, and Coyne poses rhetorical questions on humankind as ephemera.

Fitting for a song cycle inspired equally by humanoid machinery and unreal transmissions of satellite heartbreak, Yoshimi is largely a studio artifact; while The Soft Bulletin swelled to fill a concert hall, the new release makes for more of a headphones record, its sparks and sunbursts compressed into shiny binaries not optimally showcased in big speakers (cf. 1997’s Zaireeka, which requires four stereos). “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” summons the bleak sturm und clang of the Metropolis factory complex, and Yoshimi‘s shaken rhythms throughout marry Kraftwerk to Timbaland while the guitars commute between the mechanic and organic realms: On “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” what sounds like a treble-y single-chord acoustic strum melts disconcertingly into a radiowave whine. Nearly every song pulses with industrial white noise and what occasionally sound like the idle bleatings of animatronic livestock. Or are these the rumblings of an underground Pink Robot resistance?

Yet for all its future shock, Yoshimi‘s subject is more precisely future-lack: the buzz-and-whirr of a faraway computer world that never was. Coyne fixates with endearing stubbornness on tomorrow as mere hypothesis and the determined, even defiant celebration of the present moment. Which is to say, the lyrics are often corny and thin—padded with trite abstraction—whereas Bulletin, reporting from the same quarry, bustled with marauding insects and raining love-bullets and Sartrean produce. (Incidentally, for someone with such strong retro-psychedelic associations, Coyne’s verse is surprisingly unconcerned with memory.) Structually, too, the record would seem a qualified disappointment, though its very asymmetry does evoke the messy incongruities of interior life that Coyne engages. A little gimpy and always touching, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is summed up by a contradiction and an epiphany: “Do you realize that happiness makes you cry?”