by Michael Goldberg
Monday, July 22, 2002
The Flaming Lips Look Life And Death In The Eye
On Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots singer/writer Wayne Coyne comes to terms with our mortality.
Regret wafts through the melancholy melody of "Fight Test," the opening track of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the evocative new longplayer from the Flaming Lips. Regret over not standing up for your beliefs whatever the price. "I thought I was smart I thought I was right I thought it better not to fight," sings Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne. "I thought there was a virtue in always being cool/ So when it came time to fight/ I thought I'll just step aside and that time would prove you wrong/ And that you/ Would be the fool."
But, of course, life rarely works out that way. Later in the song, Coyne sings, "Oh to fight is to defend/ If it's not now/ Then tell me when would be the time that you would stand up/ And be a man/ For to lose I could accept but to surrender.../ If I could I would [fight] but you're with him now/ It'd do no good/ I should have fought him/ But instead I let him/ I let him take it."
The music, a mix of natural and synthetic sounds, is by turns dreamy, romantic and sad, and dreamy, romantic and inspirational. In "Fight Test," a cautionary tale, Coyne sings about how you can let what's most important slip through your hands if you're not careful, if you're not prepared to stand tall when everything is on the line. By setting this story in a modern world of drum machines, samples, loops and traditional instruments he underlines the difficulty of doing the right thing in the modern age.
Talk about taking on the Big Issues Coyne uses the theme of humanity vs. technology, one of the album's unifying concepts, to examine the purpose of our time here. Loyalty, love, making the most of life, the inevitability of death all important themes running through our lives. When you focus in on these songs and discover these subjects addressed in a poetic manner, sung so beautifully over music that is oddly, surprisingly reassuring much of the time well, it just blew me away.
You will hear acoustic guitars gently strummed over the sound of an artificial (mechanical) stream. Drum-machine rhythms keep the beat as synthetic sunrises unfold. Sound is sculpted into naturalistic audio dioramas, sonic landscapes against which Coyne's very human dramas play out. "One more robot learns to be," sings Coyne in "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21." "Something more than a machine/ When it tries the way it does/ Make it seem like it can love."
Clearly Brian Wilson's masterpiece, Pet Sounds, serves as something of a template, or at least an inspiration, for the Lips' latest epic. Musically, the innocence and its eventual loss on Pet Sounds echo here. While Pet Sounds was a fairly straightforward "love story" that began with the naïvete of first love ("Wouldn't It Be Nice") and ended with betrayal ("Caroline, No"), Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is bit more sophisticated. Both albums feature an offbeat instrumental; both at times use unlikely instrumentation to tell their stories.
Coyne wrote a letter that serves as the press release for the album. It's the only press release I've ever read that could make you cry, it's so personal and real. He talks of learning of the death in 2000 of a friend, a Japanese girl living in Osaka, via emails from her two sisters. That summer, he quickly wrote "It's Summertime" (actually, he sang into a tape recorder), one of the songs that appears on the album.
"What came out of me," Coyne wrote, "was this sympathetic plea to those sisters that I could not, with any certainty, communicate my condolences. It went almost exactly as it's heard now 'It's summertime and I can understand if you still feel sad/ It's summertime and though it's hard to see its true possibilities' and what I meant was this: the aims and appreciations of life are the best defense against death, and the summertime, when there is such an explosion of life everything bursting ripe this distraction, this noticing of life erupting all around, could give them comfort. I know it did for me.
"So," he continues, "I exclaimed, 'Look outside I know that you'll recognize it's summertime!!' not to be some cosmic hippie solution (there is no answer, just a change) but to better express sorrow and experience sadness than to let inner emotions inflate to the point of despair. Despair only leads to more death. For it's bad enough that something wonderful in your life has left you but to fall into despair, despair does not allow you to even enjoy what is still living."
One of the album's most sonically beautiful songs is "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell," with its jerky mechanical rhythm, haunting melody and ethereal vocals. You'll smile when you hear Coyne's overdubbed background vocals in which he sings, most gently, "I must have been tripping/ Just ego-tripping/ Just ego-tripping."
Perhaps it is a sign of growing older, but in recent years I've realized that there is finality to life. Where it once seemed open-ended (at 20, say, it was impossible to imagine getting old, let alone dying), now I can see that there is only so much time. And when death strikes, that could be it. Afterlife? Who knows. I sure wouldn't want to count on it.
Coyne speaks to this, in "Do You Realize?" with "You realize that life goes fast/ It's hard to make the good things last," and in the song that follows it, "All We Have Is Now": "All we have is now/ All we've ever had was now/ All we have is now/ All we'll ever have is now."
You could look at Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots as something of a downer, especially if you focus on a lyric such as "Do you realize/ That everyone you know someday will die," also from "Do You Realize?" But I don't see it that way at all. The Flaming Lips, rather than make disposable entertainment, are doing their best to actually say something through their art. That they can do so within the context of adventurous hook-filled songs is all the more admirable.