“I thought I was smart. I thought I was right. I thought it better not to fight. I thought there was a virtue in always being cool.” So begins Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot, the classic album from the Flaming Lips. The song goes on to talk about how being a man means being willing to fight for the important things, if necessary, even when you’re not prepared to do so.
What a revelation it was to hear those lyrics when I first discovered the Flaming Lips in college. Until then, I assumed that just seeming cool was the whole point, at least for bands. This was something different. My expectations about this buzzed-about indie band were thwarted right from the beginning.
The album came out in 2002, so there’s a good chance that you’ve heard it by now. Even if you haven’t, you might guess from the title that it deals in some way with a fight against the robots. You are right!
Time travel is in there too, but so are reflections about what it means to be human, to love and face mortality. That’s not the kind of thing you find in a lot of albums.
Photo credit: Sebastianlund
I like the Beatles as much as anyone, but “I am the walrus” only does so much to help me navigate through life. This is because, as far as I know, I am not a walrus. (Yes, yes, the Beatles have depth too. Just a quick example folks.)
I enjoy that music for what it is, a whimsical auditory snack, but sometimes I hunger for more substance, so it’s reassuring that there are albums like Yoshimi out there.
I’ve listened to it many times, but I still find new things to discover when I give it my attention. It was one of the first albums that made me realize albums could examine, in an interesting way, the bigger questions and mysteries of life. Plus, it subtly shaped my interactions, encouraging me to appreciate the short time that we have on this earth with each other.
Wayne Coyne at SXSW 2006. Photo credit: birzer
(Incidentally, the Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks also had an impact on how I treat people. Lacking pretense, the band frontman, Wayne Coyne, walks down the street in his neighborhood and greets a few strangers. He’s not selling merchandise. He’s just trying to make people smile or participate in his quirky projects.
Similarly the band does all kinds of crazy things at their shows to make them memorable. Whatever the venue, the Flaming Lips are maniacally focused, not on being cool, but on creating engaging moments for those around them.)
Music video for “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1” The joy that Wayne conveys in playing and being around his fans is not standard indie-rock fare.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call the album a great work of art, and by great art I mean a form of creative expression that takes skill to produce and has a memorable, enriching impact on how we see the world.
That’s my working definition anyway. I’m constantly revising it. I might elaborate on that definition in a later post, but for now notice the subjective aspect of it.
Art is a personal experience both in its creation and its reception, so there is bound to be some variation in what has an impact on us. Yoshimi would easily make my list of most influential albums, but I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way.
Photo credit: Profound Whatever
Even so, there is something to be said about work that has a timeless quality, that can transcend cultural differences and moments of time. It’s too early to say, but Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot might become that kind of classic. It was widely celebrated by the critics when it was released and continues to be well regarded.
Wayne Coyne at SXSW 2006. Photo credit: birzer
The other Flaming Lips albums don’t have the same magic for me. I haven’t heard them all, but the bits I have heard have been a little too experimental and psychedelic for my tastes. (To be fair I haven’t given the new stuff much time.)
That happens sometimes. Just a few artists throughout history have been able to produce a lifetime of masterpieces. Usually artists are lucky to have even a small fragment of their work survive time’s winged chariot.
People change, relationships sour, and beauty fades. “It’s hard to make the good things last,” the Flaming Lips remind us. It’s an album filled with cosmic mysteries, robots, and hypnotism, of love and lingering sadness, but it ends with the reminder that “all we have is now.” That’s about right, so let’s make the most of it.
Flaming Lips at Cornell – April 18. 2010. Photo credit: .reid.
My apologies for the delay between posts. I have a few video and photography projects that are keeping me busy, and I will be moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in less than a month. Besides, if I were to write more consistently, then I would not be able to spend as much time writing each post.
That’s why I recommend that you sign up to get email updates for this blog. You can do that by clicking here. I don’t write every week. If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.