Monday, October 6, 2014

In Revue- 'You're Dead! (Flying Lotus)

The "new jazz" is what one enthusiastic Stereogum commenter calls the fifth Flying Lotus album You're Dead! But really that descriptor, while accurate, is one of countless ways to frame Steven Ellison's new masterpiece. Astral. Spacey. Soulful. Warm. Aggressive. Calm. Lively. Necromancing. Bold. Quiet. Circular. Universal. Those words are all equally appropriate. Particularly the last of that laundry list. Not "universal" in the sense that this album could be loved by everyone; it's far too "experimental" for that. Universal meaning that it shapes and molds stray notes into something so cosmically vast that continued exploration is not tiresome.

I've lived inside of You're Dead! for four days now, playing it at least 20 times all the way through. I've sprinkled flecks of ginger onto chicken while the funk guitars of "Cold Dead" surged from my speakers. A quilt covered my head when the tense strings of "Turkey Dog Coma" faded into the stale air of my dark bedroom. I bounced to the Snoop Dogg feature "Dead Man's Tetris" on the way to class in my Scion XB and felt like Leo in Titanic, "king of the world." And not once during any of those moments did I have the slightest urge to turn the music off.

Part of that can be chalked up to the hypnosis FlyLo puts you under on You're Dead! "Theme"'s initial raga-style drones create such a dense haze that movement is impossible. The image of a runner trying to push through an Olympic-sized pool of Jell-O comes to mind when Kendrick Lamar’s laudable verse bolts over "Never Catch Me"'s hobbled synthesizers. "Step inside of my mind and you'll find curiosity, animosity, high velocity like the prophesied meditation," the Compton MC breathlessly promises. With those rapidly firing neurons, he stalls on the simple idea of a song uniting us all in love. If we can find any kind of common ground, we can delay the “embalming fluid” for as long as possible.

Of course the whole idea of You're Dead! is that the pale specter of death will visit everyone, at least one time, if not more. The crooning vocals of "Coronus, the Terminator" could just as easily be the Grim Reaper's as Otis Redding's or Al Green's. Those little trembles in the background couldn’t possibly come from this plane of existence. FlyLo's metronomic drum claps move your feet, but those consciously weird effects paw at your soul with icy hands. The panning guitar that opens the track sounds is Isaac Hayes crossing over at séance. Or a funky soundtrack to crossing the River Styx.

Ellison never once says on the album that death isn't fearful, but he doesn't have to. The bold glimmering music speaks volumes about the beauty that lies in flatlining. There are former Dirty Projectors member Angel Deradoorian's sighs in "Siren Song" which fizz like a plastic bottle of gently shaken Sprite. Each "ooh" and "ahh" over the wah-wahing guitars and muttering bass is a pat on the back, a warm reassurance that everything will be okay in the end. The comfort continues into "Turtles" where the background jangle of wind-chimes and twittering birds calmly greet you. Initially it's jarring to hear something so naturalistic on an electronic album, but FlyLo's proven over time that he can make anything sound organic. Snoop Dogg's laconic G-funk drawl has no business pairing with experimental electronic-jazz, or whatever clunky descriptor you want to use for You're Dead!, but it's there on the hallucinatory 8-bit take "Dead Man's Tetris." "No jokes, no hoax, felt his palms he had no pulse" Snoop easily raps, sounding as good as he has at least since "That Tree." When Ellison's able to not only collaborate with true legends, but get them to bend to the afterlife narrative he's crafting, you see how inspiring his vision is.

If this all this talk of "grand visions" and death sounds self-serious, it isn't. Ellison's on record as saying, "I try to think about these things with a tongue-in-cheek perspective," and it's been rightly pointed out that the "joyous" exclamation point in the album title sheds some weight from the subject. "I wanted it to be playful, because it's the one experience we have in common. I wanted to make something that captures death from different angles—from the sad moments, to the confusing moments, to maybe even the blissful and silly ones," Ellison said in a Pitchfork Update.

That playfulness is everywhere. "Ready Err Not" ingeniously incorporates a version of the Looney Tunes "boing" sound effect into a mélange of metronomic ticks and aquatic bleeps. A laugh suspiciously similar to the Mortal Kombat chuckle bellows in "The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep." Something about Thundercat's feathery singing of "walls are closing in" on "Descent Into Madness" makes me picture a wise guy angel who can't keep from cracking jokes when you approach the pearly gates. He wants to get in one last knock-knock joke before he writes your name into the Book of Life. He says "there's no escape" but it's in such an airy tone that you'd never believe him.

A form of acceptance finally comes when Kimbra and Laura Darlington's voices coolly stutter "we will live on forever" as lithe bop piano sweeps up the last pieces of a life in closer "The Protest." It's a simple and calm declaration, one far less harried than the footwork moves around it, but incredibly profound. For all the worrying we do about the temporary nature of life, we never stop to think how long our names can live on. We don't consider that one simple action of opening a door for someone or letting another car go past in traffic can travel from one person to another in an unbreakable chain. Will all the cells in our bodies eventually wither away? Absolutely. So will every piece of hair, every hunk of skin, every last nail. But focusing on individual pieces is too myopic. We need to look at the bigger picture and see that death is just a part of life and vice-versa. So it goes with every cry, laugh, whisper and scream of You're Dead!. They're all fleeting moments pieced together to form a timeless album.