Last night I saw the Flaming Lips open for Beck and then back him for the second half of his set. Good show, interesting alchemy. I have all of Beck’s records except his most recent one. And I only have the most recent Lips record, but I’ve listened to it a lot and plan to work my way backward in their increasingly noisy ouevre (kind of like surfing back through the Meat Puppets’ output).
Outside the Paramount I asked Bill and Jeff if they read the album the same way I do. To me, it sounds like Yoshimi loses to the pink robots. (She sure does a lot of screaming in part two of her battle.) Bill thought I was taking it all too literally, and that it’s not a concept album outside of that song or maybe a few others in the first half. Jeff wasn’t sure. He thought Yoshimi won.
It may well be that I’m taking the whole rock opera conceit too seriously here. The story, if it exists, does get vaguer as the record wears on, and like most rock ‘n’ roll, just about every track can be read as a love song. There are songs where the lyrics can mean one thing if said between two lovers and another if part of a sci-fi storyline (“you and me/were never meant to be/part of the future,” for example).
What follows is what textual basis I can find for my reading of the story, from the teensy lyrics in the liner materials of the CD.
1. Fight Test
The narrator is regretting not fighting for something or someone. (“i thought it better not to fight”). There seem to be two voices actually (“oh to fight is to defend/if it’s not now then tell me when would be the time that you would stand up and be a man”). My warped brain nowadays associates that line with the bellicosity of the blogosphere. Here’s the love song part: “if i could i would but you’re with him now it’d do no good/i should have fought him but instead i let him – i let him take it.” (it?) The title of the song and its location at the start of the album suggests that someone has been found wanting (no fight in him) when put to the test. Maybe the lover who did not fight “him” for “it” reenvisages the battle as between the heroine Yoshimi and the evil pink robots? We’ll see.
2. One More Robot / Sympathy 3000-21
This song seems to be in a very straightforward way to be about robots developing emotions, becoming conscious, and trying to love us. (“one more robot learns to be/something more than a machine” … “is it wrong to think it loves/when it tries the way it does?”). This song also continues a subtheme in Fight Test (“i don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlight begin/it’s all a mystery”). The Sorites paradox… when does something become something different when things seem to blend into each other through infinitesimal incremental changes. When does AI beget life, love, jealousy?
3. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1
Well, something went wrong. The robots that woke up and tried to love us are now “programmed to destroy us.” The narrator has put his faith in Yoshimi, who won’t let the robots “defeat me” nor “eat me.” Jeff thinks Yoshimi wins because “she’s taking lots of vitamins.”
4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2
The only vocals on this track are listed as “(screaming).” It sounds like Yoshimi to me. Why is she screaming? It doesn’t sound like war cries to me.
5. In the Morning of the Magicians
The narrator of this song can’t remember in the morning “what is love and what is hate – the calculations error.” Calculations? Is this the robot narrating now? Has the perspective changed. Is this the morning after the cataclysmic fight? The question of calculating emotions and the inability to tell sunbeams from stars, robot from conscious being, and love from hate may all be related. The song goes on – “as the dawn began to break – i had to surrender – the universe will have its way – too powerful to master.” Surrender to what? Is this defeat? Did the robot surrender, overwhelmed by the full range of consciousness? Did the humans surrender to the onslaught of the robots, being absorbed into their consciousness? Why is the narrator talking about calculations, getting confused, and saying oh-oh-oh (000?)
6. Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell
This song is the first to read much more clearly as a love song than as part of the imaginary? sci-fi epic. Seems to be about what it says it’s about, confusion, tripping, and slipping. Getting lost in the overwhelming stream of moments. Hey, I’ve been there. But what about Yoshimi? Story over?
7. Are You a Hypnotist?
A surreal song. The narrator keeps getting lost in semantic wordplay, asking “what is this?? are you some kind of hypnotist.” It’s hard to read too much into this, although it seems like relationship talk and might in some slight way relate to the confusion in the previous song and possibly some kind of switching of sides or reversing of polarities (love/hate).
8. It’s Summertime (Throbbing Orange Pallbearers)
Another more personal sounding song, with a little bit of the same mirror-inversion, this time focused on looking inside (to sadness) versus outside (to summertime). The sadness spoken of in this song permeates the album. It always makes me feel emotional, releasing sadness in cathartic way. This may be what prejudices me to think that there’s an unhappy ending buried in here somewhere.
9. Do You Realize??
This song hints at where the love story and the apocalyptic robot tale might overlap. The most powerful part of this song (performed by both the Flaming Lips and Beck last night) is the line “do you realize that everyone you know/someday will die?” but this is not intended to bring on the bummer. The next line is “and instead of saying all of your goodbyes – let them know you realize/that life goes fast/it’s hard to make the good times last.” Live in the now seems to be the message. “In the long run we’re all dead.”
10. All We Have Is Now
The last song with discernible lyrics echoes the theme of “Do You Realize??” in its title and message. This song also bring the science-fictiony element of the album back to the fore with its first lines: “as logic stands you couldn’t meet a man who’s from the future/but logic broke/as he appeared he spoke about the future.” And what exactly does the man from the future tell us? “‘we’re not gonna make it’/he explained how the end will come.”
Then the narrator says “you and me were never meant to be part of the future” and suggests how to respond to this bad news about the future: “all we have is now – all we’ve ever had was now – all we have is now all we’ll ever have is now.” This, I believe, is the central message of the album.
The second verse identifies the man from the future: “i noticed that he had a watch and hat that looked familiar/he was me/from a dimension torn free of the future.” So when he repeats “we’re not gonna make it” it may be that “we” simply means the narrator in both of his time incarnations.
OK, so if we take this literally, the self from the future comes back and warns that “we’re not going to make it” – although he comes from a dimension torn free of the future, so it’s not perfectly clear that our future is his future. Still, if we interpret this in the sci-fi context, this is where I fundamentally get the idea that Yoshimi loses her battle with the pink robots. The end comes when robots awake, try to love us, and end up wiping us out.
The other interpretation of this song fits snugly in the love context. “we’re not gonna make it” and “you and me were never meant to be part of the future” could just as well describe a relationship that is doomed. It could equally represent a man suddenly envisioning the demise of a relationship but determining to live the present reality of the relationship to its fullest, “in the now.”
Perhaps the fight-loser narrating the first song imagines returning to the past to warn his younger self to get in the game and make the most of it before everything falls apart. Is this lover imagining the sci-fi struggle as a metaphor? Are the lovers a human being and a robot? I’m so far out on a limb now that I’m going to drop this now.
11. Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)
Features “(strange talking and screaming).” Beats the shit out of me. A new start on a new planet? Just plain weirdness like everything else?
There’s probably a whole body of fan-theory on what this album is about if it’s about anything. I deliberately didn’t search out there for anyone else’s thoughts so I could try to get it down as it has seeped into my mind, a kind of crystalline multidimensional hyperreal tale-fragment.
I’d love to hear other interpretations.