Ten Years On: The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
Today marks the 10th anniversary of one of the 21st century’s most uplifting and important albums, The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Brimming with life, colour, and utter weirdness, Yoshimi… stands as one of the liveliest, most memorable and engaging listens of the past decade, and arguably the Oklahoma outfit’s most career-defining release, in retrospect though, it was the work that the Lips were already working towards a couple years prior.
Coming off the back of their critical breakthrough, 1999′s The Soft Bulletin, after almost twenty years of commercial abstinence and lukewarm press coverage, Wayne Coyne and co. had released what many deemed album of the year.
Inspired by the death of Coyne’s father, The Soft Bulletin was bursting with emotional candour and lush orchestration, abounding with themes of mortality, fear and hope . Tracks like ‘Race For The Prize’ combined a larger-than-life euphoria with a wholly uplifting story about two scientists racing for a cure to save humanity, at the expense of their own lives. ’Waitin’ For A Superman’ too combined lush arrangements with a greif-striken, but sincerely optimistic story.
Despite its universal acclaim, winning the hearts and minds of the critical community – the album didn’t manage to secure the commercial success their major label would have hoped for. You can’t fault the ambition of a track like ‘A Spoonful Weighs a Ton’; but commercial viability? Probably not.
Cut to three years later, and instead of touring the world on the back of their ‘masterpiece’, The Flaming Lips were doing what they always did, muddling about in their own weirdness.
Namely, Coyne had every member of the Lips’ entourage involved in filming Christmas on Mars, a lo-fi, low-budget, full-length science fiction movie about a suicidal Santa Claus living on Mars. At the same time, the band were casually in the process of recording sessions for what would eventually become arguably their most important record, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
Question marks hung over both projects however, as multi-instrumentalist (and Christmas on Mars’ lead actor) Steven Drozd slipped deeper into an already crippling heroin addiction. Having been a daily user throughout the recording of The Soft Bulletin, the band were soft on Drozd, as he was seemingly able to keep his addiction under control; at least enough to contribute to the band.
However, things were looking dangerous during the Yoshimi… sessions. As captured in the documentary, The Fearless Freaks (filmed by long-time friend Bradley Beesley), Drozd was looking scarily gaunt, had sold all of his belongings, was without a car; everyone feared for his life.
Frustrated, Coyne confronted him during one recording session, which erupted into Coyne hitting his bandmate repeatedly in the head. It marked a turning point, and eventually Drozd moved out of Oklahoma City, and got clean after clearing rehab.
The newly sober Drozd rejoined the recording of the new album, galvanising the band into finishing their ambitious new psych-pop record, upon its release, it quickly found favour with critics keen to further validate the act they fell in love with on The Soft Bulletin. Released ten years ago today, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was released to unanimous applause.
Combining their previously lush orchestration with all manner of electronic textures, Yoshimi was a neo-psychedelic pop album which was quickly labelled a modern classic. The album ranked #4 on Spin‘s ‘Best of 2002′ list, Rolling Stone, Fortune and Billboard all sang its praises. While Pitchfork named it amongst the ‘Top 200 Albums of the 2000s’ and Uncut magazine would name it #11 on their own ‘Best Albums of 00′s’ list.
It’s no surprise given the way the album married its kaleidoscopic musical invention and experimentation with a heartfelt lyrical core.
Thematically, Coyne grappled with all manner of life’s great questions, “what is love and what is hate?/and why does it matter?” he questions on ‘In The Morning of the Magicians’. While the album’s call-to-arms opener, ‘Fight Test’ asks “If it’s not now then tell me/ when will be the time that you’ll stand up and be a man?”. And who can possibly name a song about death which is as gleefully life-affirming as ‘Do You Realize??’
While their playfulness had long been one of the band’s most endearing qualities, never had they embraced it so fervently. Steve Drozd’s drums had never lifted so heavily from hip hop; such as the precision boom-bap beat on ‘Are You A Hypnotist?’.
The production on the album’s titular track sounds like a child having a bubble bath with all their favourite toys. While ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2′ does indeed sound like a young Japanese woman fighting an army of pink robots, (with the black belt in karate and determination that ‘Pt. 1′ describes) complete with screaming from the titular Yoshimi P-We – drummer for J-rock act, Boredoms.
Despite the obvious strangeness of The Flaming Lips and their newest set of musical eccentricities, Yoshimi, much like The Soft Bulletin before it, revealed the underlying sincerity within their psychelicious sounds. More than ever before, the group were keen to explore the connections between us all, with a affable disregard for pretence or earnestness.
All this under the guise of a concept album involving a Japanese woman with enviable martial arts skills battling a race of robots, who happen to be pink, in a landscape of time-travelling magicians and reaching rainbow-hewed cities called ‘Pavonis Mons’.