It could have been any college town, but it happened to be State College, Pa.: “Hey, have you heard the new Flaming Lips record?”

“Do you like Styx?”

Well, no—and there is a difference. For one thing, the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots isn’t anywhere near as funny. And the Oklahoma City-based trio’s latest post-psychedelic not-quite-concept-album has none of the mock-impassioned heartlessness that defined late-’70s Broadway rock, from Meat Loaf’s pompous, cynical, and knowing masterpiece Bat out of Hell to Styx’s own pompous, xenophobic, and piteously self-deluded train wreck Kilroy Was Here—which was so late-’70s that it came out in 1983, pretty much killing off its kind. Over the past five years, in the place of scarf-wringing opera for the kids, on the one hand, and Vitruvian Man-posed songs of the body unelectric, on the other, the Lips have opened up an arena all their own, in which they venture the first truly cosmic rock to break your heart as it blows your mind.

If this recent development is the product of a band of nearly two decades’ standing, it was anything but foreordained. The labile, incongruous cluster of Dust Bowl weirdos that has made up the Lips since their 1983 founding has always been cosmically inclined, but not previously in a way that overcame the members’ apprenticeship as addled Okie garage punks. Their earliest albums are rousingly slapdash, something along the lines of the Replacements-

meet-Joy Division-meets-the-Meat Puppets, but they aren’t brimming with promise. There was little to suggest the Lips wouldn’t always be a clique of low-rent townies who spent a lot of time on the patio, smoking, looking at bugs, and stargazing. Everything they did, no matter how diverting, was tainted with an unspoken “Like, wow.” Despite the noisy appeal of 1989’s Telepathic Surgery, by which point the Lips had become the hometown equivalent of Sonic Youth, its main achievement was to suggest that Middle American skronk was more generous, less uptight, and less self-consciously gritty than the arty urban kind—which, frankly, we could have guessed.

The band continued to blunder around the studio into the next decade, and the bookends of the middle period, 1990’s Spacemen 3-ish indie swan song In a Priest Driven Ambulance and 1995’s lo-fi-delic major-label-career-threatening flop Clouds Taste Metallic, remain cult favorites. But even the late-blooming, left-field nuisance novelty “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the band’s sole chart hit (which reached No. 55 in 1995, two years after the album it was drawn from was released), failed to mark the band as more than a lucky bunch of jackoffs. One critic thought it appropriate to mention the “inspired wackiness of They Might Be Giants”—and he wasn’t trying to be unkind.

It wasn’t until six-string wunderkind Ronald Jones departed in 1996 and the Lips were freed of the constraints of being a guitar band that original frontman Wayne Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins began to exploit the hidden genius of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, a Houston transplant who had been the group’s drummer beginning with 1993’s Transmissions From the Satellite Heart. So it is only since 1997’s Zaireeka, a four-disc set that requires four simultaneously launched CD players and with which the band discovered its sense of scale, that the Flaming Lips have succeeded in becoming one of the most ambitious bands in rock. And it is only since 1999’s The Soft Bulletin that they have fulfilled those ambitions. That album, recorded in Cassadaga, N.Y., with longtime Lips producer and Mercury Rev member Dave Fridmann, emerged as one of few pop records possessed of true grandeur, its densely layered tales of vying scientists, bested supermen, and insects swarming like half-conscious thoughts laying out the human relation to a vastness beyond all comprehending. If you’ve ever had someone come up to you on the street and offer you a flier informing you that you’ve been using only 10 percent of your brain, The Soft Bulletin is the record to make you think that maybe it’s true.

Whereas Zaireeka was the Lips’ Ummagumma and The Soft Bulletin was their maturity-defining Dark Side of the Moon (though a much better record), Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is their Wish You Were Here, a loosely conceived yet cohesive collection that bids farewell to a friend of the band who’s gone forever in a nebulous way. Coyne has said that he’s never sure whether knowing the story behind a record improves it or “just makes it sappy,” so he confines his comments (titled “The Impact of Death on the Sunrise”) to Yoshimi’s press kit. But this is a tale worth telling: Two years ago, a friend from Osaka who had traveled with the band in Japan died unexpectedly of a heart ailment, and her sisters, whose English wasn’t very good, sent notice via e-mail. It was hard to figure out what exactly was going on, the band was still busy on the road, and the news sank in slowly. “As weeks passed and spring became summer,” Coyne writes, “the realization of her death slowly bloomed—it was very strange—never at once did it overwhelm me, it did not come like some giant black spear piercing my chest, as other deaths had done—it came a drip at a time—never a rush of the unthinkable—it came as a gentle devastation…”

Coyne had grappled with outliving his friends as far back as 1986, with “Godzilla Flick” from the Lips’ first long-player, Hear It Is. But when he sang, “People that you love/Never going to say hello again/And it’s only in the movies,” he was willingly toying with self-delusion; the song is about a suicide and gets cut short by the sharp echo of a gunshot. Years later, Coyne has grown up and his clumsiness has left him; circumstances have changed and they require a different sort of peace to be made with them.

On “It’s Summertime (Throbbing Orange Pallbearers),” Coyne offers the sisters a vision of thriving nature. He doesn’t choose spring, when many grief-stricken people succumb to the despair they hoped would lift with the passing of winter, but the season after. By summertime, perhaps the feeling of being mocked by nature’s inexorable renewal will have passed. It may be small solace to observe that life goes on, but it’s the only solace we’ve got.

And it deepens once you give yourself over to it. The vibrancy that persists in the face of mourning isn’t a cruel joke but proof of the overwhelming simultaneity of existence, which is Yoshimi’s central theme. According to “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” living means coming to terms with all the moments you don’t experience while fixing on those that potentially have you at their center, and dying means joining the stream of the “billion other moments…just slipping all away.” If the widescreen hymns of The Soft Bulletin counterposed tragedy and hope, the songs on its follow-up advance a synthesis, a sun-drenched fatalism that’s both accepting and awe-struck.

Animated by a naivete that age has imbued with real affect without undercutting its charm, Coyne’s lyrics—and his high, thin, strained voice—breathe life into science-class truisms. He brings the celestial down to earth, humanizing Spiritualized when he sings, “Do you realize/We’re floating in space?” as if he can just roll down the window and wiggle his fingers in the solar wind. He takes only a few more words to turn “Do You Realize??” into a song about death, leave-taking, and cherishing life, and the message of “All We Have Is Now” is similarly self-evident. But even though it’s delivered by Coyne’s alter ego, visiting from the future with news that “we’re not gonna make it,” it never sounds flaky, corny, or pat.

The reason this time out, as with the last, is the music. When the band returned to the two-speaker convention following Zaireeka, it brought along a deeper, broader soundstage and arrangements of orchestral complexity that continually relocate their melodic emphasis. Press accounts of the track density of some Soft Bulletin cuts ran as high as 150 or 200. Who really knows? What matters is that it has become a philosophical point with Coyne & Co. that there is always something else going on, from the swooshing Oxygene-like synths on “In the Morning of the Magicians” to the strings that strew Hearts of Space-ish star stuff across the end of “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21.”

Heavy-bass devotee Fridmann has long pumped up the Lips’ bottom end, and though Yoshimi carries them as far as they have ever been into the land of electronica, they still aren’t a dance band. That’s because, to them, rhythm, no matter how pronounced, is never carnal—earthy, yes, but sexy, no. If I may offer so handy and vulgarized an analogy as Van Gogh’s Starry Night (thanks, Don, for spoiling it for everybody), on Yoshimi’s canvas, rhythm erects those dark, heavy-footed cypresses, while everything else—the multiple melodies carried by bells, ‘boards, guitars, and strings—conjures the heady swirls and shimmers overhead. So, yes, everyone’s still kicked back outside Coyne’s house, camped out under the trees and picking out constellations—only now such dawdling takes on the significance of attempting to orient oneself with respect to the universe. As “Fight Test” has it, “I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlights begin/It’s all a mystery/And I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life/It’s all a mystery.”

If Coyne has been able to sustain that mystery over the last two albums, it’s because one of his strengths is that he never overdetermines his metaphors. Unlike Kilroy, who was given an explicit back story and then marched through his paces like a toy soldier, Yoshimi appears only once: in the anime-esque two-part title track, where she merges hazily with her namesake, the Boredoms’ Yoshimi P-we (whose screams punctuate the second half’s otherwise wordless combat), as well as with the Lips’ unnamed Japanese friend. But just as the valiant medical researchers of “Race for the Prize” hover easily over the rest of The Soft Bulletin, lending it shape, the elusive pink-robot-battler guides the new album’s treatments of conflict, confusion, and acquiescence to the infinite.

She can’t be allowed too great a presence because the central character of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is ultimately Coyne himself, who for obvious reasons needs to soft-pedal the fact that his forte is making concept albums about his own dawning awareness. His songs of waning innocence aren’t yet songs of experience, and given that he’s already in his 40s, they probably never will be. Hard-wired with wonder, he is someone who honestly can’t get used to the idea of being alive. If theat quality used to place him among rock’s most solipsistic performers, it now makes him one of its most universal. CP