It’s odd to me that, for a band I like as much as the Lips, I can’t seem to review any of their albums. I adore “The Soft Bulletin;” it’s just that I don’t understand it. When I try to review “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” or “Clouds Taste Metallic,” I keep thinking “duh, of course I like this album, it’s 90’s noise-rock with existential themes. It’s like it was written for me to give it a good review.” So I end up reviewing Yoshimi. It’s not my favorite, but it’s up there and it’s structured in a way that’s conducive to the way I write reviews.
It’s a fairly popular opinion that the Flaming Lips are the modern-day successors to Pink Floyd. Whether or not there’s any substance to this claim, I recognize a fairly similar arc to their respective careers. First, they built up a cult following in the underground scene, then they burst onto the mainstream and survived there for a number of massively acclaimed albums, slowly petering out artistically as they replaced originality with artifice and tried to please the crowds.
Yes, I hate most of the songs on “The Wall” and literally everything after it, and no, I will not apologize for this shocking opinion. It represents the exact moment at which classic Floyd became a non-entity, as Roger Waters gained full creative control while destroying his friendship with Dave Gilmour–in fact, the latter happened while they were working on “Comfortably Numb,” by some accounts. While nothing this dramatic appears in the annals of the Lips, it would seem to me, at least, that they also entered a slow decline after going mainstream, putting their punk roots further and further behind them and trying to capitalize on the sound that made them big.
If the Lips are Floyd, then it can be tempting to see Yoshimi as “The Wall.” They’re both concept albums (“The Wall” more so) and to me, at least, they marked the beginning of their respective bands’ declining periods. Nothing but a few individual tracks after Yoshimi ever satisfied me, and nothing after “The Wall” was even listenable to me.
But perhaps a more apt analogy is that Yoshimi is like “Wish You Were Here.” Yoshimi is a simpler and less ambitious concept album than “The Wall,” far more on the level of “Wish You Were Here.” There is the added parallel, in my mind, that both are the last good album by their respective band. (Yeah, you Animals lovers out there, I’m gonna piss you off too. Sorry!)
So it’s fitting that both the albums we’re comparing would harp on the central themes of the band as a whole. In the case of Pink Floyd, we have a lament for early Floyd frontman Sid Barret, whose descent into madness preoccupied Waters for several years and several albums. In the case of the Lips, we have this theme of heroic struggle against the challenges of life, a theme which began early in the Lip’s discography and became even more predominant in albums after Yoshimi.
Yoshimi opens strong with “Fight Test,” a song which got them sued by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) for plagiarizing the melody and chords to “Father and Son.” Some have seen the song as an ironic response to the original, but when questioned, frontman Wayne Coyne seemed to say it was more a matter of simply liking the melody and using it. I don’t know, it’s been a while since I read that interview. I have a hard time with the ironic response idea.
Musically, it’s a good song. Say what you will about the ethics of plagiarism, good ingredients make a good cake. Lyrically, it seems to be written from the point of view of a young man trying to prove his superiority over his ex’s new boyfriend by refusing to confront him, convinced that she will vindicate him by returning. It’s essentially a look at pacifism, which should tell you right now how the rest of the album is going to be. Supposedly, this song and the next three form a loose story, which is why I call this a loose concept album. I’ll admit, though, that I don’t know how to square the disparate parts of this story into a cohesive whole. 8/10 minus two points for plagiarizing the classics, giving a serviceable 6/10.
Next is “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” a ballad about a robot learning human emotions, falling in love and trying to comfort the object of its affections, who is “sad.” You know, I’ve previously gone on record as saying I identify hard with the song “Sci-Fi Kid” by Blitzen Trapper, so it might not be surprising that I find this sentimental little ballad touching. The music is nice, a kind of dreampop or modernized prog-rock with analog instruments blended freely with synthesizers. 6/10, after I deduct points for trying to tug my heartstrings.
Then comes the two-part title track, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1/Part 2” Part 1 is an uptempo ballad about a girl named Yoshimi, a martial artist who works “for the city.” The singer begs her to defend him from pink robots. Now, some see this as a metaphor for a girl dying of cancer (though reports that it’s about an actual cancer patient that the band knew are apocryphal), and in fact this is partially the angle that the musical based on the album runs with. However, the musical was written ten years later by writers outside the band, so I don’t know if that’s indicative of anything or not. Notable is that the band knew an actual Yoshimi, the drummer for a Japanese band of their acquaintance, the Boredoms.
Since I don’t really interpret it as the cancer thing, I’m left to either take it at face value or try to analyze it further. One could say that Yoshimi herself personifies striving in the face of the absurdity of life, which is definitely a major topic on the album, but that might be belaboring the point a little. At any rate, part one is pretty great. 7.5/10
In fact, on the second part, a wordless semi-instrumental, Yoshimi P-We does provide screaming and howling vocal sounds against the back drop of a musical chaos presumably representing Yoshimi’s showdown with the Pink Robots. The urban legend goes that these are the screams of a dying cancer patient, which is, again, totally apocryphal as far as I can tell. It’s harsh and not terribly easy to listen to, but it does remind me of Earthbound battle music, so 5/10?
Now, in these four tracks, treating them all as narrative material like many listeners do, we have multiple romantic entanglements, a good robot, bad robots, and anywhere from three to seven characters, depending on what individuals are the same people between songs. If this were a rock opera, it’d be a fairly convoluted one, but as a concept album I can cut it a little slack. A concept album doesn’t even necessarily have to have a coherent plot, just enough suggestion of one for the listener to fill in. Still, even for a concept album, the narrative is vague, if it exists at all.
Next comes “In the Morning of the Magicians,” named after a once-famous French book of speculation on the occult. I find the title oddly compelling, if ultimately non-indicative. As far as I can tell, this song is about waking up in the morning and realizing that your moral code is arbitrary and unexamined. To some people, an alienating premise, but then again, this is what this band is about. The music is reminiscent of One More Robot, only even dreamier and with less of an edge. I like it on that level, and I appreciate that it begins to ask some hard questions, though it fields not even a tentative answer. 6/10.
“Ego-Tripping at the Gates of Hell” is a brief ballad about being so wrapped up in yourself that a meaningful moment slips away without you noticing it. I can rave to that. More of us have been there than we like to admit. Musically, though, it blends into the previous track and doesn’t really break an inch of new ground. 5/10.
“Are You a Hypnotist?” is a harder-rocking song, which is probably timely given the two tracks before it. In a hard-building, musically intense chorus, the singer, feeling betrayed, demands of his lover “are you some kind of hypnotist?” It has the same kind of feeling of manipulation and betrayal as one of my old favorite songs, Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky,” but I grow wary of giving songs good ratings just because I relate to them. Objectively, though, it has a great chorus. 6/10.
For some reason, I forget that “It’s Summertime” exists. It’s sweet and encouraging, but obviously filler and apparently unmemorable. 4/10.
“Do You Realize” is probably the best song on the album lyrically. Some might accuse it of being the “deep” ramblings of a stoner, but that’s doing the song (and probably some stoners) a bit of a disservice. This is a song about breaking down the illusions of everyday life, from the idea that the sun moves and the Earth is stationary, to the idea that we’ll always have enough time to say goodbye to everyone before they inevitably die. “Instead of saying all of your goodbyes,” the singer advises, “let them know you realize that life goes fast/it’s hard to make the good things last.” By phrasing the verses as questions, Coyne invites the listener to examine our own misconceptions.
Musically, it’s every bit as good, with a steady rhythm but a dreamy melody that might have influenced “Space Song” by Beach House. 8.5/10, because any higher would just be gushing.
I dunno, something about “All We Have Is Now” is a little too Radiohead for me. It’s the way the vocals are processed. On the surface, it’s a sci-fi piece about meeting your future self and learning of your own impending death. On another level, I guess it’s just about seizing the moment. But the album didn’t really need another philosophical song. 5/10.
The finale is a cool space-rock instrumental with a jazzy edge, “Approaching Mons Pavonis by Balloon (Utopia Planitia).” It’s filler but it’s also spacey. I’m torn. 6/10, I guess.
So while I wish this album had a little less filler and a little more variety, and while I wish that it had gone somewhere with the narrative elements, I like enough of the individual songs for it to be alright. I like this album all the more because it’s the last one where the band had an ounce of musical subtlety, and the last one where they even tried to be subtle about their weird philosophy of absurdist optimism or whatever. I mean, hell, the next album has a song called “The Will Always Negates Defeat (The W.A.N.D.),” and it goes on like that. Ultimately, it’s a solid late offering from a good band fallen on hard times. It never really soars, but it doesn’t have any real let-downs either.
Whole album average: 5.96 rounded to 6.0/10
Best song: “Do You Realize?”
Most mediocre song: “It’s Summertime”