Flying Lotus, AKA Steven Ellison, has never shied away from grand narratives. From Cosmogramma’s ascent to the depths of the universe to Until the Quiet Comes' musings on the subconscious, his subject matter has never been less than ambitious. His latest release is no exception as Ellison delves into arguably the greatest subject of them all: the inevitability of death and mystery of the afterlife.
The theme may be morbid in theory, but as it manifests itself on the album its nothing short of exuberant. You’re Dead! kicks off at its darkest moment, a dense cacophony of strings evoking a nameless sense dread and anticipation as we stare into the impending void. But then it explodes, abruptly metamorphosing into a sonic whirlwind of cascading cymbals and soaring horns. Setting the precedent, the next 38 minutes of the albums duration hardly leave time to catch a breath. The afterlife, as Ellison conceives of it, certainly doesn’t seem to be a place of melancholy, far less of rest.
You’re Dead! is truly an album of crossing over, in the metaphysical sense which the album’s theme addresses, but also musically. It’s not the first time Ellison has toyed with free jazz instrumentation and structures: the spirit of his aunt, the late Alice Coltrane, hung heavy on his 2010 record Cosmogramma. However, I feel that it’s the first time that Ellison has truly had the confidence to dive into the genre. You’re Dead! twists and turns, the sonic landscape crammed with scattershot drum refrains, modular guitar improvisation and careening saxophones. One feels that its closest forefathers are the Miles Davis jazz-fusion records of the 70s. Appropriately Herbie Hancock gives his seal of approval, lending his keys to ‘Moment of Hesitation’ and ‘Tesla’, thereby sealing the genealogical link – one might even be tempted to call the record a Bitches Brew for the 21st century.
The fact is, however, that the album resolutely defies categorisation. From the apocalyptic orchestral drone of ‘Theme’ to the machine gun pace of Kendrick Lamar’s bars on ‘Never Gonna Catch Me’, You’re Dead! flits between genres with a characteristic irreverence. One feels that for Ellison, an entire genre is just another colour in his musical palate. In this way, it is, to a certain extent, an album unquestionably of its time. The way the record flits from Slayer to Sun Ra seems indicative of an age where the entire history of music is available at the tips of our fingers. However, in other respects it feels determinedly at odds with the contemporary musical landscape.
It’s the albums structure which distances it from its contemporaries. The individual pieces are less songs than rapidly evolving, amorphous ideas which bleed into one another, creating a hypnotic and enthralling soundscape. The result is that Ellison has created that rarest of beasts in the contemporary musical landscape: a unified statement.
This album, as much as it is about death, seems more like an affirmation of life and a challenge to the very idea of mortality. The aptly named ‘The Protest’ draws the record to a close on its most modest and even human note. It is here that the album’s metaphysical musings on this most beguiling of subjects comes to a head. The dense arrangements dissipate, and we’re left with a simple piano refrain, 4/4 hip-hop beats and the chanted mantra ‘we will live on forever and ever’. As Ellison himself stated, “I wanted it to end like: This isn’t the end. We’re dead on Earth, and our shell is dead, but we live on. All of our influences live on forever”. And with an album as unprecedented and vital as this under his belt, I can’t help but feel FlyLo is destined for such immortality.