From the late ’80s through the ’90s, The Flaming Lips carved their own niche of psychedelic guitar rock so successfully that few bands that could keep up with them. After the experimental four-disc set, Zaireeka, and, to a much more accessible extent, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, the boys from Oklahoma City continued to use the computer as a composing tool. This trend continues with their latest disc, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, an amalgam of broadly based progressive concept rock and accessible pop that will confound some and delight others.
Whereas Radiohead’s take on the mechanization of society has been bleak in the extreme, the Lips seem determined to focus on re-humanization. In a funky take on Japanese cartoon heroes, the title track focuses on a civil servant using martial arts to battle evil machines, while “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” relates the story of a machine learning to feel love, and in four minutes does more with the ethical questions posed by such an eventuality than Spielberg achieved in the whole of A.I.
While these cuts are entertaining, it’s the more immediate issues confronted in songs like “Fight Test,” “Do You Realize?” and “All We Have Is Now” that are the most compelling. While the music is based around sampled beats and plenty of synthesized tweaking, singer Wayne Coyne’s lyrics are insistently grounded in human mortality and the hope that an honest assessment of it can be inspiring rather than depressing. In the brevity of life, Coyne finds grounds for celebration and revelation; anyone who’s seen the band live can easily visualize him holding his hand to the sky while singing, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” and “You and me were never meant to be part of the future.” In other hands, lines like these might turn into adolescent navel-gazing, but the focus here is on the joy of living for the present, a difficult trick to pull in a society seemingly bent on diversion and denial. Their wonderfully bizarre sound gives the Lips’ optimistic message more weight than any tired platitudes, and their experimentation serves as a beautiful springboard for hope.