Flaming Lips albums have always come like musical missives from the ‘Twilight Zone’, uniting Wayne Coyne’s starry-eyed magical realist story-telling with their quest to bend and redefine the very nature of the pop sound. They’ve never cared about capturing the zeitgeist or revisiting their early ’90s one-hit wonder commercial heyday – and that’s part of their inviolate beauty. Surely, though, in the wake of their splendid last album ‘The Soft Bulletin’, over which every music critic on the planet wet themselves, they must have felt some pressure. If so, the confident and imaginative ‘Yoshimi…’ does a fine job of hiding it.
A sideways step from the lush orchestration of ‘…Bulletin’, which seems positively baroque in comparison, ‘Yoshimi’ replaces that album’s symphonic wall-of-sound with skillfully textured electronics, samples and acoustic guitar. Though more understated, it boasts just as many moments of sublime pop glory – ‘Do You Realize?’ is upholstered with joyful Beach Boys harmonies while ‘In The Morning of The Magicians’ has an orchestral swell and fuzzy bassline weirdly reminiscent of Jimmy Webb’s immortal ‘Wichita Lineman’.
As always, there is absurdity, playfulness, and childlike naivety, balanced out with musings on Big Issues (What is love? Is anything we believe in real?).
In Coyne’s philosophical and quixotic worldview, humankind is at risk – this time not from disease (as in ‘…Bulletin”s ‘Race For The Prize’) but from evil robots (or whatever menace they metaphorically stand for) bent on total destruction. Of course, this being the Lips, the bad guys can be vanquished with love, overcome with optimism, quieted with wonder, and beaten into submission with backing shrieks from The Boredoms’ Yoshimi.
Coyne’s rickety voice gives human warmth to a console glow of of keyboard whooshes and surges of electronica that venture out like astral projections, especially in ‘It’s Summertime’ and, yes, ‘Ego Tripping At The Gates of Hell’. The notes he can’t hit are as expressive as those he can, making the corniest sentiments (the delight of sunlight, the vacuum primordial mysteriousness of existence, the unknowable of death) almost uncomfortably poignant.
As Coyne’s hair grows greyer and more unruly, it seems, his creativity proliferates. The Lips recorded this album (helmed by ‘…Bulletin”s producer Dave Fridmann) simultaneously with the scores for a friend’s fishing documentary and their own forthcoming Yuletide-themed venture into cinema Christmas On Mars. ‘The Soft Bulletin’ may remain their ultimate masterpiece – in the way that it referenced every other record in the Lips‘ career – but try to name another band who have lasted ten albums, each one more visionary than the last. Can’t, can you? ‘Yoshimi…’ sets yet another benchmark.