The Flaming Lips — Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
Qobuz reissue review (November 2022)
If, in 1999, The Soft Bulletin found the Flaming Lips decisively moving away from their previous identity as acid-damaged rockers and segueing into a more genteel sort of psychedelia, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was where the band fully set their controls for the heart of the sun. The Lips completely shed the dissonance and goofiness of their early major label releases and turned the sweeping soundscapes of Soft Bulletin into the foundation of Yoshimi, a new sound that was cosmically and philosophically indulgent. While these indulgences would go to extremes on many of the band’s future releases, here they’re a dazzling balance of bold sonic experimentation and deeply melodic (but sublimely weird) song structures that resulted in what is probably the strongest and most cohesive album in their catalog.
Though technically not a concept album (only the first third relates the “Yoshimi” storyline), it is nonetheless tightly bound to its sonic signatures (burbling synths, overdriven percussion, highly processed guitars) and the even-toned, reverb-drenched approach to vocals that Wayne Coyne had recently settled on. (The way that Coyne sings on the Lips’ aughts-era albums manages to be the most unsettling combination of “it’s all gonna be fine” soothing and “the universe is ending, let’s get weird” chicanery.) Coyne, guitarist/drummer/studio rat Steven Drozd, and bassist Michael Ivins — along with producer Dave Fridmann — spent nearly two years putting the album together, and in that time, it seems they set out to explore the outer capabilities of every piece of equipment encountered. Yet the result never sounds like a collagist pastiche or an over-gilded lily; instead, it has a warm, lived-in feel, but one where home is a slightly rusty spaceship stuck on the outer edges of the galaxy.
For its 20th anniversary, Yoshimi is getting an encyclopedic expansion, with an additional five discs worth of material appended to the original album. The majority of the bonus studio tracks were already previously released on various singles, EPs, and one-offs (most of which were compiled on the DVD-Audio release of Yoshimi). But there is also much more in terms of previously unreleased studio tracks, many of which are surprisingly revelatory demos.
While some of the demos are the unpolished run-throughs one may expect, others are seemingly half-baked fragments that are not only delightful on their own, but also give a peek inside the band’s creative process: The rough, three-minute sketch of “Do You Realize??” shows the listener where Drozd added the soaring chorus that not only became the song’s signature, but also gave it its epic emotional heft. There’s also a 15-song concert from an early 2003 date in London that was previously broadcast on the BBC that is an excellent document of the band’s effusive live presence.