by Jasper Willems July 14th, 2017
The things you love the most will also infuriate you the most. Even with certain bands. Everyone remembers the first time they heard that lifetime-defining album. Mine was Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips.
I heard Yoshimi from beginning to end for the first time at my parents’ house. Back in our living room, my mom’s blank stare stood affixed to the TV. She was already wheelchair-bound at that time: hair falling out, teeth missing, limbs swollen. The corollary of years of structural alcohol abuse. My mother had a rich but tumultuous life; she tapped out prematurely and opted for a slow death. She couldn’t face life anymore. In her final years, she was often infuriating, like a pouting child, whenever you challenged her to stop self-destructing.
Even more infuriating is how I struggled to access my own feelings at the time. I underachieved in high school because of incessant bullying, and for five years after I graduated. At last, my life looked to be on the mend. I finally found a course in Utrecht I liked, I was meeting some new people my age, all without too much awkwardness involved. Ergo, at age 22, I reached something that resembled my idea of acceptable. I discovered the joys of playing an instrument (the drums), which prompted me to join the MX Tabs Forums. Much like the Drowned In Sound forums’, MX Tabs was a tight-knit online community, and intense discussions were always afoot. As OrbDragon, I argued vigorously with fellow posters about the supposed superiority of death metal and posed questions like whether you could love Jars Of Clay as an atheist. You know, valid stuff. I had my Björk-PJ Harvey-and-Tori Amos phase here. My Frank Zappa-phase. My Built To Spill-phase. My Morphine-phase. My Madlib-phase. My Slowdive-phase.
It was here I discovered this band from Oklahoma City called The Flaming Lips. I was so fanatically immersed in all the artists and bands I discovered; looking back now, my obsession with music became this potent anesthesia that repelled me from the pain of witnessing the deteriorating husk of flesh my mum had become.
She would die of heart failure on February 27, 2006, and three weeks prior to that, The Flaming Lips’ follow-up to Yoshimi, the politically-charged Dubya Bush-era At War With The Mystics leaked online. Call it fortuitous. One lyric, on the gorgeous ‘Vein Of Stars’, read: “Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven / Locked in the future, maybe there ain’t no heaven / It’s just you ‘n me and maybe it’s just as well / If there ain’t no heaven / Maybe there ain’t no hell…” The number 27 is always the evil number associated with death in music, and goddamn, my mom was a singer. As inevitable as death is, I realized right at that time The Flaming Lips weren’t just a phase. They were definitively that band. You know, the one who rigorously forms this tight symbiosis with your soul. The band that would not let go until the final reckoning.
The first time I actually heard the Lips was when I saw the deliciously vibrant video for their Beach Boys-indebted anthem ‘Do You Realize??’. Initially, I started formulating reasons why to like or dislike this, cause let’s face it, it’s kind of a cheesy song. Wayne Coyne, surrounded by rabbits, frogs, and elephants looking like Willy Wonka-meets-Lord Summerisle, seemed like a frontman revelling in the altruistic and absurd. My skepticism, of course, shattered forthwith once Coyne delivered that piercing line in his typically childlike coo: “Do you realize / That everyone you know / Someday will die.”
It was the first time I realized I was just as selfish as my mum at the time, turning the other cheek from your loved ones. Here I was, finally — almost — free from discontent and self-loathing, whereas my mum wallowed in these same emotions. I’m still guilt-tripping over the times we shared a living room every day because we hardly lived with one another. Neither of us had the willpower to do so: I was so reluctant to reopen fresh, traumatic wounds within her, and she didn’t want to drag me down with her.
Either way, with Yoshimi The Flaming Lips shook me out of my own strange detachment from my surroundings. It was, among other things, just strange to me how an album about a Japanese girl destroying “evil-natured” Pink Robots could impact me so profoundly. By framing it into a Good vs. Evil story about overcoming great odds, many listeners likened Yoshimi to some proggy pretense-laden concept album. In a way, though — and to throw a bit of a curveball — it kind of is.
There’s an odd naivète about using all this technicolor sci-fi imagery to veil sentiments about nihilism and mortality. Maybe it’s a way to hush our existence into softer chunks. To do everything to not go insane, like that Italian movie Le vita è bella, maybe. I’m convinced of this though: The Flaming Lips don’t get enough credit for channeling complex emotions. Wayne Coyne is often described as an unflinching optimist, blindly rejoicing in the grandiose and preposterous with big hand gestures. He’s the guy who sometimes jumps the shark too often too soon, these browbeat attempts to make things fun to the point where it becomes downright annoying.
I didn’t care. After Yoshimi came out, I bought every Flaming Lips album in short order. In the noughts, Wayne Coyne was either God, Santa, a Wizard or an Alien to me. Two days after tossing my mom’s ashes in Oklahoma’s Red River, I saw The Lips for the first time in Paradiso. It was an incredible, baffling show; nun puppets, toy instruments, balloons…lots of fucking balloons. Aliens and Santa’s were dancing on either side of the stage, and yes, I even got to shake Coyne’s hand prior to the show. When you’re young, you relish having that role model as a beacon, that figure to guide you through life’s inherent struggles and mysteries.
Coyne was everything I aspired to be; a bona fide entertainer, bursting with enthusiasm, super charismatic, endlessly curious about the universe we inhabit and our human nature. As an artist, the headstrong Mr. Coyne is able to suspend one’s disbelief on a whim. But he’s also a bit of a wacky dilettante, a fearlessly flawed human being; he couldn’t hold a note to save his life. He didn’t even try to properly mime playing guitar in the ‘Do You Realize??’ video. His superpower was his limitless imagination, and The Flaming Lips have been the instrument of that imagination ever since they formed in 1983; coincidentally, the year I was born.
For a long time, between Transmissions and Mystics, The Lips could simply do no wrong in my book. But on the dour and diffused The Terror, that beautiful technicolor world, established for me by Yoshimi, crumbled to cinders. Even Wayne Coyne was no Wizard Of Oz. But he was in a band that appeared in a Superbowl halftime ad with their most experimental LP on the shelf. Those type of things I always marveled at, how The Lips’ sheer appeal often transcended their refusenik whims.
This fantastic, in-depth Guardian interview with Coyne, a year prior to The Terror, revealed what I always secretly guessed; death has always kept The Flaming Lips’ merry spaceship in place like an anchor. The band’s run-ins with death are frequent and notable. Coyne’s parents both succumbed to cancer, Steven Drozd’s life hung in the balance multiple times due to his heroin addiction. When Coyne was just 16 and working at Long John Silver’s, he was held at gunpoint. It’s impossible for me to fathom how that must’ve felt. I can only mildly empathize with the way it must have triggered him to become such a restlessly creative soul. To make the most out of the time he has.
In that interview, Coyne says: “The Soft Bulletin is a quest. It’s saying ‘I think life is more beautiful than it is horrible,’ but I don’t really believe that. I think the world is more horrible than it is beautiful.” He pauses again, momentarily downcast, then rallies. “But we have to make it beautiful.”
But Coyne has tested my loyalty as a fan to its utmost limits this past decade. Ever since his divorce from Michelle Martin in 2012, he seems to have flown off the rails, both professionally and personally. His seemingly naive and oblivious antics infuriated me numerous times, to the point where I started to question if I would ever properly enjoy the Lips’ music again. In particular, his vindictive reaction to drummer Kliph Scurlock’s controversial departure felt so out-of-place and devoid of character compared to the jocular ringmaster front he puts up in the spotlights. The whole circus that ensued was super disheartening to read as a fan.
It seemed clear from that point on; I once idolized the projection of Wayne Coyne as the frontman of The Flaming Lips, not the occasionally insufferable person behind that projection. But we all have an ugly side, and it’s not fair to expect artists that reflect on existence to hide the ugliness. To totally go out on a limb, I believe you can overcome this inward struggle. I say this very reluctantly. I just feel, once your relationship with a particular band becomes so symbiotic, being a disillusioned fanboy eventually becomes this suffocating, poisonous disposition. To stop listening to the very band that helped you cope with harrowing death and loss? That would ultimately be an act of resignation. And nope, I’m not planning on dying a slow death like my mother eventually did.
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots turns 15 on Sunday 16 July. In 2002, when it came out, the Lips were riding the pinnacle of their popularity: they got Justin Timberlake to dress up as a dolphin, they were able to render Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ into a cathartic torch song. As the cliché goes, Yoshimi is an album that easily could’ve been released today. The Lips funneled The Soft Bulletin’s wide-scape crusade of optimism into an even more expansive sonic palette.
The early highlight of Yoshimi is ‘One More Robot/Symphony 3000–21’, laced with wispy electronic beats and Coyne’s unsteady croon musing whether robots are able to grasp the concept of love. This Asimovian theme of science vs. spirituality always fascinated me, which is why I was so obsessed with Björk at one point. I kind of realize that ‘One More Robot’ might be the reason why I’m so fond of Japanese Breakfast’s new album Soft Sounds From Another Planet at the moment.
It’s a lot more comforting to reflect the world as it should be instead of as it is, and the former notion is exactly what Yoshimi represents to me. Opener ‘Fight Test’, riffing on Cat Stevens’s ‘Father And Son’ (the Lips were sued by Stevens and lost), pleads to take the higher ground instead of wallowing yourself in spite, while ‘Are You A Hypnotist??’ presents the zenith of composer Steven Drozd’s work as a skinsman, applying expressive, fragmented drum breaks to the surface from the song’s aquatic atmospherics. The line “I have been tricked again into forgiving you” hits home harder now, because it could allude to the disappointment of a fan.
But ‘It’s Summertime’ puts a hand on the shoulder; “All you see is a self-reflected inner sadness”. A song I initially deemed superfluous now slow burns as one of the album’s most unspoiled and innocent open-the-drapes kind of moments. Yoshimi constantly fluctuates like that, between sentiments of detachment and embrace.
The album’s crown jewels are undoubtedly ‘Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell’ and ‘All We Have Is Now’. The former almost serves as a light-hearted requital to ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’; its playful, bouncy cadence is so inviting, yet Coyne’s inertia keeps you at arm’s length. That subtle transition where the piano chords kick in gives me chills. This is exactly the type of ploy used to buoy up some kind of redemptive twist. But instead, Coyne insists the moment never comes, leaving a palpable emptiness… you can crave love and adoration forever, but what is it exactly, that makes you entitled to it?
One thing I like to emphasize again; beneath that veneer of unheeding spectacle, The Flaming Lips are fiercely realist (nihilist??) and, to put it even more crudely, fucking dark and death-obsessed.‘All We Have Is Now’ is about a man from the future forewarning his past self his relationship is doomed to fail. Well, fuck. Coyne sang on ‘Ego Tripping’ how that stirring moment of requited love would never come, only to later write a narrative about someone taking that very moment away from himself voluntarily. I always found that very unsettling. The song itself, sonically speaking, is of unspeakable beauty, its currents briefly accelerating into an ethereal slipstream until it slows down again, re-running its simple message.
Heck, even ‘Do You Realize??’, a song oft-criticized for its trite aphorisms, pulls at the threads by reminding the listeners of their own mortality with a single line. The song is the good cop to ‘All We Have Is Now’’s bad cop, and a perfect example of how pop music can potentially achieve unexpected, perception-altering weightiness in a jiffy. It goes to show; sometimes you have to explore the same ol’ cheesy platitudes because their feasibility appeals to most, if not all, people. Heck, dismiss LFO’s ‘Summer Girls’ as shallow boastful drivel at your own behest, but once Rich utters the line: “But she’s been gone since that summer” the whole thing gets turned on its fucking head.
Bear with me for one last cheesy allegory; sticking to your favorite band is like sticking to your one true love, even if that love somehow erodes, suddenly ceases to be, or fizzles out slowly. You’ll get hurt, disappointed, you’ll question your life choices day-by-day. And certain things you will regret forever. In the time my mum got sick, all that suppressed fear and numbness left a huge void. The things you love repulse as often as they inspire; that’s the price you pay for taking the chance to actually love something or someone in the first place. Once you succumb to that, you have no choice but to learn to live with that innate fear of losing it.
The Flaming Lips have appealed to my altruistic side as much as my cynical side. But that doesn’t change the fact that Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots shook me up during a crossroads moment. It emboldened my brain, my heart, and my courage like no album has ever done. This album, despite everything, taught me how to think and feel with clarity, humility, and grace. And, whenever I fail to do just that (more often than I’m open to admitting), how to stand up and face the music, even if that battle happens to be a losing one. So yeah, I’ll listen to The Flaming Lips until I tap out myself. “The test begins… N-N-N-Nooooooowwwww!”