In 1999, the Flaming Lips released what amounted to a comeback album: after a car accident nearly killed one of their members, a spider bite almost cost another the use of his hand, and the release of a four-disc CD set that was meant to be played simultaneously that left even diehard fans scratching their heads, many wondered if the band was through for good. Instead, they emerged from David Fridmann's studio in upstate New York with "The Soft Bulletin", an album of contemplative space-pop which was instantly adored by critics and longtime fans alike. Not since their one-hit wonder single from the early 90s hand the band received so much attention or sold so many records (the single: "She Don't Use Jelly", which was big enough to land them a gig on the television show Bevery Hills 90210).
On the heels of this success, they have teamed up once again with Fridmann and produced what is quite possiblyt the most consistent album of their careers. It maps the same emotional territory as its predecessor, but it is much more focused and concise while retaining the otherworldly aspect of the band's sound. The acid noise experiments and meandering explorations of their younger days are gone, replaced by the kind of pop songs you might expect to hear on Mars 50 years from now.
The disc starts with the irresistably hummable "Fight Test", which might be the most radio-friendly single the band has ever produced (even though they selected the somewhat more abstract "Do You Realize?" to be the actual first single from this disc). The album then moves into a 3-song mini-epic about the title character, Yoshimi. "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" tells the story of a robot learning to feel emotion. You wouldn't believe that a band as human and rough around the edges as the Lips would be able to pull this off, but from the bass line that sounds like a piece of heavy machinery softly starting to break down, to the skittering, frenetic touches of percussion, to the effect on lead singer Wayne Coyne's voice that gives it a hollow, metallic feel, the music is a perfect accompaniment to the theme. "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1" is a laid-back, cheery pop song filled with assorted technological blips and bleeps that gives us an introduction to Yoshimi and her life as a special agent who fights robots for the city. Finally, the instrumental "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2" musically interprets the climactic battle between Yoshimi and 3000-21. I know, I know, it all sounds really weird, but it actually works: you get a real sense of these characters and their linked stories.
After this, the record departs from the story of Yoshimi, but the musical elements that were introduced during her tenure remain for the rest of the record: quiet, brittle acoustic guitars, drum machine percussion, Coyne's frail, ghostly falsetto, and bass lines that sound like pulses from a long-dead neutron star, with a subtle background of natural and synthetic orchestral elements that give the whole record a dreamlike feel. There is a common ground to the lyrics as well: whereas "The Soft Bulletin" agonized and despaired about the loss of loved ones, "Yoshimi" reaches a more zen-like state of acceptance. Lyrics like "The universe will have its way/Too powerful to master" ("In the Morning of the Magicians"), "I was waiting on a moment/But the moment never came" ("Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell"), "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die/And instead of saying all of your goodbyes/Let them know you realize that life goes fast/It's hard to make the good things last" ("Do You Realize?"), and "All we have is now/All we've ever had is now" ("All We Have Is Now") all underscore the core message of this album: loss creates sadness, but since loss is inevitable, recognition of future loss can make you appreciate the good things you have at this moment even more.
The disc ends with another instrumental, "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)", which continues the musical style established earlier in the record and really does make you feel like you're slowly approaching a Martian city in a hot air balloon. Seriously. It's a nice way to cap off the journey this album has taken you on, leaving you feeling calm and serene.
It would not have been surprising if the Flaming Lips had veered off on another one of their inscrutable tangents after the near-mainstream success of "The Soft Bulletin", but instead they returned with a record that is catchy, innovative, and all-too-listenable while still retaining their innate quirky charm: this is interplanetary pop for the next century. If you're new to the Lips, this would undoubtedly be the best place for you to start, but longtime fans won't be disappointed, either.