Review Summary: And then, the quietus came
Behind the hazy memories of rhythm and the tweaked-out faded melodies, Steven Ellison's body of work has always been defined by its exploration of life. From birth and existence, to the reaches of our imagination and our limitations; the identity of a town and that town's imprint on one's own identity, Ellison has, with a cataloger's fervor, attempted to chronicle the very fabric of the human condition. That his latest LP should arrive with a title that carries with it the very gravitas of finality after such an introspective release as Until The Quiet Comes
is of little surprise; where the former chose to probe the subconscious, the latter throws light on perhaps the most suppressed of our natural urges - the understanding and need for survival in the face of mortality.
Such a singular and conceptual melancholy as death's eventual inevitability is, in itself, a heavy topic to be addressing, though also one that's arguably behind every musician and songwriter who has ever attempted to diagnose the maladies lying at the heart of humanity (there's a joke in here somewhere about the topic being "done to death"). Ellison however approaches life's last great mystery with the same sense of avant-garde absurdity that's become a hallmark of the Flying Lotus name.
With each full-length release Ellison has continued to drift further and further away from the LA beat-scene that he almost single-handedly brought into the mainstream's consciousness, and this latest LP only offers brief glimpses from the J Dilla-aping days of 1983
. Dilla still remains a key component of Ellison's identity though; his influence is as much tied into the conceptual narrative of the album as Austin Peralta and Alice Coltrane. They're the motivation behind Ellison's constant bridging of sounds and worlds, and You're Dead!
represents the artist attempting to reconnect with these catalysts of creation.
That Flylo's latest LP should find its title cut to ribbons with the terminality of an exclamation mark says a lot about the way Ellison has approached the subject matter at hand. It presents the impression of an irreverent remark, a curiously morbid reminder, that alternately seems fascinated by, and laughs at, the prospect of shuffling off this mortal coil. While lying at the opposite end of the spectrum, this celebration of limbo is still a natural extension, and perhaps the
integral chapter, to the producer's detailing (and understanding) of life's structurally unforgiving cycle. As if to make mockery of such a linear continuum, You're Dead!
attempts to find a counterpoint to Miles Davis' reckless disregard for what jazz was supposed to be and sound like.
Armed with such an agenda, Ellison attempts to pull Bitches Brew
apart, treating Herbie Hancock's ivory flashes and Thunderkat's bass noodling as landmarks in his hyper-lurid vista of hard bop and jazz-laden ambiance. From the black hole of droning opener 'Theme', to the percussive onslaught of footwork-inspired 'Never Catch Me', through to the album's final coronach of mortal epiphany, Ellison attempts to redesign the Jazz Album; experimental, seemingly improvisational, and preoccupied solely with its own vanguard. You're Dead!
therefore operates as one whole thematic piece; while Kendrick Lamar assists on undoubtedly the album's centerpiece, 'Never Catch Me' serves as the only parcel really capable of existing outside of the medium. As the album moves through various sections and suites, it can create jarring transitions - brief passages of reflection that beg for more life and zest. The album releases such an incredible burst of energy so early in the proceedings that Ellison seems to spend the rest of the release trying to replicate the effect, or alternatively, trying to catch up with his restless persona.
Though 'Coronus, The Terminator', 'Siren Song' and the aforementioned 'Never Catch Me' relish in their longevity, they're somewhat at odds with the constant activity You're Dead!
can't seem to live without. Which is a common criticism of Ellison, and ultimately how you approach and appreciate this album will be dictated by your experiences with the artist's previous works. But through all the ebb and flow of the album's staggered terrain,
there's very little tying down the individual components. It's not until the album enters its final stretch that Flylo seems to settle into any kind of permanent continuity. In a section that recalls The Roots' similarly-themed Undun
, Ellison ends his journey with an ascendant passage of glory. Like the final call of a heralding valkyrie, Flylo creates a tonal feeling of awe and light, perhaps as a coping mechanism for this last great gig. It levels the obsequy assembly before it, revealing a gratifying feeling of pride at the accomplishment of life - a last laugh, perhaps.
With a million feelings crammed into mere moments, You're Dead!
makes for heavy listening, both in tone and execution. It's a celebration dedicated to friends, family and mentors - one that doesn't wallow in melancholy but instead surges with pride and acknowledgment. Save for a few stretches of inconsistent detours, You're Dead!
is another reliable entry into the canon of one of the most brazen and forward-thinking producers out there. Though not a defining work, it's still a mark of excellence - an exploration into anxiety that reveals both beauty and courage in the process.