This piece was originally published on the 6th of October 2014 by The 405; this version has been slightly revised. So, this was first big review I wrote for The 405, and I remember it being a struggle. I mean, that much is clear when reading the thing, as it’s obvious that didn’t have a fucking clue what I was listening to. I tried to make the most of my bafflement by confronting it explicitly in the piece, but I don’t think that excuses the weak writing abou tthe music itself, the frothy hyperbole throughout the piece, or the stupidly bold proclamations in the final paragraph – all of which betray how unfamiliar I was with this kind of jazz (and with writing about music in general). A more proactive editor probably would have beaten out that kind of shit out of me, but so it goes.
First, there’s confusion.
Steven Ellison recently told Pitchfork that his fifth LP as Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!, found its inception in such questions as: “What else is out there? What could happen next? What would the moment of death sound like?” You know, the Big Questions that leave most of us bemused and slightly unsettled because they’re essentially unanswerable, and the unknown is kind of terrifying. Well, Ellison isn’t like most people; he appears to find the prospect of the unknown both exciting and invigorating, given that he proposes an answer to “what’s next?” by imagining the afterlife as a pungent and frankly baffling psychedelic trip. We’re consumed by the vortex of his imagination and cast into a deranged world, one that’s beyond human comprehension and in which there is seemingly no control – even if, paradoxically, this world was the meticulous design of a guy in his apartment.
All of which is to say that You’re Dead! is an absolute headfuck of an album, often elusive, scattershot, and amorphous. Its tracks function as short, gnarly sketches of experiences beyond this world and they’re all bereft of well defined structures, mixed in such a way as to bleed into each other and form one seemingly dynamic, rapidly evolving piece of music (much like Cosmogramma, his third album). In doing this, however, Ellison leaves little to latch onto. So many ideas are thrown out at such a pace, and so densely packed into an abundance of layers, that you’re left little time to fully grasp what’s going on, or, for that matter, why. You may begin to get the gist of an idea after twenty seconds or so, only to feel lost when Ellison throws a curveball and swiftly moves on to something completely different. Really, the only tracks that leave an initial impression are the few with vocals, with a more readily available human element, while everything else is lost in a torrent of noise. It can be overwhelming at times, but not in a good way. Impenetrable, almost.
It’s no great surprise, then, that You’re Dead! was originally conceived as a straight-up jazz record. Disillusioned with the placidity of modern jazz, Ellison sought to issue a corrective statement: an album that could both revive and reinvent the wild and rhythmically dense jazz-fusion of Miles Davies, Herbie Hancock, and George Duke. While the album evolved as the death concept was introduced and other stylistic elements came into play — hip-hop, electronica, progressive rock, even a sprinkling of metal — it still feels like a jazz record more than anything else. Largely, this is because You’re Dead! has the most organic mix of a Flying Lotus album to date, built on a foundation of drums, bass guitar, and keyboards, rather than the digital instrumentation that Ellison has grown farther from with each successive record. Because of this live band atmosphere, there’s a tangible sense of interplay and improvisation, made even more impressive by the fact that Ellison never once recorded a full band during its creation. He instead recorded session musicians individually and wove the different layers together so tightly that it still feels fresh and vital, as if they were all in the room together.
This liveness certainly bestows upon You’re Dead! a sense of spontaneity hitherto absent from Flying Lotus’ discography, but it remains that jazz-fusion is not a sound you tend to hear in 2014, and it can be alienating to the untrained ear. The rapid pace of the record can leave you dazed at the best of times, but, coupled with jazz fusion’s labyrinthine time signatures and convergence of styles, the record occasionally threatens to overload you with stimuli. Which isn’t a value judgement, exactly. It’s just a different approach, one with which a large portion of Flying Lotus’ audience (myself included) is not familiar – even with his previous forays into free-jazz. So, in that sense, the confrontational spirit that instigated the You’re Dead! project never really faded. Ellison could have made an album of accessible bangers if he so desired, but that isn’t really his style; he prefers to challenge both himself and listeners to take in different experiences with his records, to shake off the crutches of conventionality and embrace something new. To be blunt, Ellison wouldn’t have made a jazz-fusion record in 2014 if he wanted everybody to feel at ease and instantly get it. So it may be daunting and incomprehensible and weird as fuck, but it’s absolutely by design.
Then you begin to get the hang of it.
Because Ellison’s intentions wouldn’t mean a thing if the music itself didn’t resonate. And it does, eventually. We take it for granted at this point, but Steven Ellison is a magnificent producer who, through some absurd genius magic that I don’t want to spoil by overthinking, conjures up sounds that can instantly galvanise you, that can light you up and free your mind. He’s not changed tact on You’re Dead!, even if he switched up his sound. It might take a while to let it sink in and process the ways in which he’s presented his ideas, and you may have to train yourself to make sense of what’s going on and listen to the album deeply a fair few times, but that’s hardly a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s rewarding. Through repeated listens, You’re Dead! blossoms: cogent ideas and layers become more apparent as you become more familiar with the album’s sprawling structure. Certain melodies, textures and even whole tracks — insofar as they actually exist — settle down and nest in your mind. I found myself spontaneously singing ‘Coronus, the Terminator’ while cooking dinner, humming the vocal melody of ‘The Protest’ in the shower, thinking about a sax solo from ‘Cold Dead’ pretty much constantly. Jazz-fusion may not be a sound you hear in 2014, but, with Ellison’s deft touch, You’re Dead! is all the more interesting because of that. It’s an interesting sound once you get to grips with it, unique and really quite hypnotic.
And, soon enough, the album’s dumbfounding pace becomes a marvel to behold. There’s an exhilaration to be found in the aural gymnastics pulled off by Ellison and his musicians, something incredibly invigorating in keeping up with them and unpicking their dense rhythms. Moreover, their dexterity and rapidity contributes to an overall sound that’s distinctive and rich, that erupts with vibrant plumes of colour and beauty. And therein lies one of the album’s most interesting facets: for something so overtly concerned with death, it’s never morose or baleful, or even particularly dark. The exclamation mark in the title indicates exuberances more than anything else; the album is jubilant, grandiose, and weirdly playful, like Ellison is suggesting that there’s as much beauty to celebrate in death as there is in life, and that death is merely the beginning of something else, something different. The decision to craft an album that’s initially so daunting actually exacerbates this; it foregrounds Ellison’s theme, puts you in the mind of someone who’s experiencing the afterlife for the first time. For Ellison, death, like all new experiences, takes some getting used to, and, as you become more comfortable with its weirdness, the joy and beauty gradually begin to overwhelm everything else.
Finally, there’s bliss.
Because, really, isn’t this what Flying Lotus is all about? Pushing boundaries? Jolting you out of quotidian rhythms and challenging you to experience the world in new ways? I mean, Ellison has never made a record like You’re Dead before. Not as Flying Lotus. Not as Captain Murphy. And certainly not for anybody else’s artistic project. In this sense, it’s in equal measure the most and least typical album Ellison has made; it may not necessarily sound like anything he’s made before, but it’s most definitely true to his innovative spirit. But it goes beyond that, because I’m unsure whether anybody has made a record like You’re Dead before. I’ve not heard anything like it and I’ve certainly not even scratched its surface after having had a month with it. This record is a wholly singular work; not only does it defy expectations of what a Flying Lotus album should sound like, it totally obliterates any preconceptions about what can be released by a remotely popular contemporary musician. And, sure, that’s not inherently virtuous, you may find the album to be incomprehensibly sprawling and masturbatory. But holy shit is it refreshing. And, once you get on this album’s level, holy shit is it freeing.