By Mark Guarino
It may have taken millionaire balloonist Steve Fossett six tries to orbit the earth, but for the rest of us, it can happen with one listen of the transcendent new album from Oklahoma trio the Flaming Lips.
Is it a coincidence, then, that “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (4 stars, Warner Bros.) ends with a mini-score for a ride up, up and away in a beautiful balloon (“Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon”)? That sense of floating through space and time is what makes this album, released today, such an exuberant listen — it fast-forwards to a land of science fiction but without the artificial sterility filmmakers like Spielberg or Lucas typically show us. The Lips’ brave new world is in-your-face and fleshy, sobering but joyful, and most of all, confronts the anxiety and hunger of modern times.
The Flaming Lips is frontman Wayne Coyne’s conduit for the mind-blowing art pop he’s been making for two decades. In 1993, he scored a novelty hit (“She Don’t Use Jelly”) and joined the Lollapalooza crowd on tour. Afterwards, he went back underground to work on projects including a symphony that could only be played live across 40 car stereos and the Lips’ most recent tour requiring concertgoers to wear headphones so they could hear an enhanced broadcast of the live mix.
Those antics ensured his band cultish notoriety, except with 1999’s “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.), Coyne proved he could marry his sophisticated ideas with accessible melodies. The album was devoured by fans of trippy orchestral pop and who regaled the Lips as a rare breed of band that made abstract albums that could also potentially rock a stadium.
“Yoshimi” is more digitized, rife with video game discord and splinter-sharp beats. Bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Steven Drozd reinvent their playing, digging for rhythms inside rhythms, the result a spectacular, and more satisfying, headphone odyssey.
Robots and space battles may decorate “Yoshimi,” but like the best science fiction novels, the music masks what it’s really about: human fragility in the modern day. The genesis of the album was reportedly the death of a band friend and also Coyne’s father. So the gorgeous ballads and trip-hop electronics keep returning to those true celestial mysteries such as mortality, responsibility and love.
Sounding like he’s spread on his back on the grass staring at the sky, Coyne sings, “do you realize that everyone you know someday will die/and instead of saying all of your good-byes, let them know you realize … the sun doesn’t go down/it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round” (“Do You Realize?”).
“Yoshimi” may take sound streamed in from a galaxy far, far away, but it’s an album celebrating how right it feels to be right here, right now.