At best, The Soft Bulletin, the lavishly lauded 1999 album from the Flaming Lips, was a pretty bore. The songs were gorgeous, but held little energy. It was an album for unhurried fall afternoons when nothing much happens. Up until Bulletin the Lips' career stemmed from noisy guitar rock and conceptual concerts akin to Allan Kaprow's happenings. Since Bulletin, they've kept the weird gigs (even if they've gotten a bit more serious), but they've shunned the noise and the fun.
The serious tone of their latest disc, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, reveals the furrowed brows, gnawed pencils and forehead slaps that mark its creation. It's more of an accomplishment than an album. Despite its white-collar sound, Yoshimi feels like hard work, a serious undertaking by singer Wayne Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins and producer/Mercury Rev member Dave Fridmann in pastoral upstate New York.
While appreciating Yoshimi for its merits poses little problem, actually enjoying it is more difficult. Plainly put, the new album isn't much fun to listen to. A sense of unbridled spontaneity is what made the Lips' two best albums, Clouds Taste Metallic and Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, so enjoyable. They were like well-written paperbacks, proficient and exuberant. Yoshimi feels more like a textbook, with the Lips' impulsive, musical nature dulled.
Yoshimi's soft melodies rob Coyne's voice of its bitter bite, morphing what was gravel into sugar. What were guitars are now strings. The Flaming Lips are now something entirely different the Cooled Lips, or something. Even the song inspirations have changed: Old Lips favorites seemed to reference glorious acid trips, while Yoshimi focuses on the inevitability of death.
The album's heavy reliance on electronic sounds plays a big part in its failures. There's a feeling of distance between the music and the ears. Rather than adding another texture to the music, the drum machines, loops and samplers encumber it. It's not that the beats and clicks seem unnatural in fact, they fit perfectly but they scrape away the humanity of the songs.
"Are You a Hypnotist??," for example, possesses Yoshimi's strongest melody. Aside from Coyne's smooth, effortless croon, the cut's most prevalent sounds are aggressive, spliced beats and weird electronic plucking noises. It's gorgeous, but what should be a completely arresting song becomes something you might find in a laboratory. It sounds clinical, mitigating the raw emotions that the vocals educe.
Bulletin and Yoshimi feel like soundtracks and good soundtracks at that but they're not enough. Soundtracks enhance and contrast with other actions when combined with a film. Yoshimi tries to achieve its storytelling of epic battles between Japanese women and effeminate robots without the visuals, and fails. The Flaming Lips want us to see the film in our heads, but we're just left yelling, "Focus!"