As a title, “You’re Dead!” sounds either like a threat or a metaphysical speculation. As an album, apparently, it began as a hunch. Flying Lotus—Steven Ellison to his mum—claims that it popped up in discussion with bassist Thundercat. The pair was driving around Los Angeles, listening to George Duke. Ellison felt that the free jazz and fusion experiments of the 1950s and 60s left a lot of cues for new music. If anyone dropped a Duke record in 2014, he wagered, it would knock everyone dead.
It’s a mad proposition. Only a visionary, or someone powerfully dilated, would opt to wander the free jazz outlands in search of the Next Big Thing. It’s hardly popular territory. Music critics after Nat Hentoff have mostly discounted the genre—for its academicism, inaccessibility, and paradoxically formulaic quality. Fans, also, saw it as pretentious experiment that led, basically, nowhere. Fusion, for all the respect it commands from heads, has been downgraded to a punch line in a Mighty Boosh bit, the musical equivalent of a brown shirt and pencil moustache. For Ellison, though, it’s personal. The wild space of free jazz is actually a kind of family estate, passed down to him by his great-aunt, Alice Coltrane. It is not surprising that he would want to recoup the work of his heavyweight ancestors, to slot them back into a working lineage.
And “You’re Dead!” does kill. But not in Duke’s way (or Trane’s). The “feel” of free jazz, that uptight spontaneity, is there. But Ellison is too restlessly imaginative to work a nostalgic angle. He plays with the genre in numerous ways, and enlists multiple partners—Thundercat, Herbie Hancock, Kamasi Washington and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, among others—to find links between his influences and his output.
In a sense, each of the 19 tracks represents an alternate present, in which jazz somehow remained relevant. These visions have a strange economy. The songs are short, with several coming in under the two-minute mark. They are dramatically dense, and occasionally expansive. Many seem like the sketch of a complete musical program, a hundred other albums in short-form. Where his forebears were spacey and voluble, Ellison seems impatient—jotting down ideas, and barely following them to their conclusions. In so doing, though, he escapes the jazz stigma of length: that endless noodling, the tongue-speak of “legitimate” genius. Instead, he sections the source elements, testing their mix in permutations. “Dead” kills the formula of the jazz session, pulling apart its timescale. Tracks were recorded separately, with collaborators contributing lines, now and then, in his home studio. This took the most fetishistic aspect of jazz—its presence, required by the improvisational format—and simply trashed it. The slippage one hears on “You’re Dead” is the social ideal of the studio session translated into the digital era.
The first 30 seconds of “Theme” sets the stage. It’s orientalism turning suddenly into hard bop—the arc of “A Love Supreme,” in fast forward. As with much of FlyLo’s output, this gesture works on a number of levels. The Eastern influence is, famously, Coltrane’s. It’s a midcentury cliché. It is also Ellison’s own spiritual preoccupation, and points back to “Until The Quiet Comes,” 2012’s meditation on death and jazz. The opening drone is beautiful—a cry reverberating across some distant plane. It could be a reed (a Duduk?) or the fuzz on an imperfect synth setting. It lasts only a few seconds, a breath of sadness or longing, before Ellison locks in the album’s musical framework: uptempo drums, pads, saxophone runs, and Thundercat’s articulate bass. These opening tracks are lovely—as are the later returns to jazz on “Turkey Dog Coma” and “Moment of Hesitation”—and they recall the cinematic colour of many 60s compositions.
Elsewhere, the album is all careful contrasts. Ellison expands his formula more obviously into other genres, into trip-hop, bass, R&B, and points in between. The modal jazz palette turns into left-field hip hop on “Never Catch Me,” a chord cycle featuring blazing vocal support from Kendrick Lamar. It seems simple, but the track is hard to pin down stylistically; it veers toward footwork before returning to a long, soulful third act that sounds like a spare twist on drum and bass. The jumpy mood contrasts heavily with the next song, “Dead Man’s Tetris,” which features Snoop Dogg and also Ellison’s alter-ego, vocalist Captain Murphy. It’s on the menacing end of dubstep’s half-time throb, and the vocals feel more like chanted threats than rap per se.
Again, the feel shifts with the elastic soul of “Turtles.” We get a brief glimmer of the old FlyLo, a snatch of syncopated drum programming that echoes back to tracks like “Camel,” before fading into chimes and naïve vocals. “Ready Err Not,” which follows, is a perfectly (almost quaintly) structured song. It has a beautiful sense of arrangement, with notes of something new age—Tangerine Dream? Ray Lynch?
These tracks mark the start of a metaphysical turn, as the last quarter of “dead” veers heavily into trippy contemplation. At times this is murky, as in “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep”—a disturbing eulogy for Austin Peralta, the LA pianist (and son of Z-Boy Stacy Peralta) who died suddenly in 2012. Other portions, like “Descent Into Madness,” have the feel of a psychedelic show-tune. This passage feels much less compressed, giving the close of the album a different kind of intensity: here, death is real death, and we are thinking in cosmic proportions. There’s elegance to it, though; it’s neither a dénouement nor a collapse into fug. There’s a strangely elegiac feel, and—if I’m not reading it wrongly—a return to the awed grace of A Love Supreme. Flying Lotus is mature enough, as an artist, to express something that usually turns into kitsch. Death is not treated like a piece of bong-wisdom. Neither is it a joke, anymore. But it’s not sadness, either. “Protest,” finally, captures the sense of being very near to something enormous and ineffable, announced by that cry which opens the album: a moment to take a last look at our burdens before we lay them finally, sweetly, down.
02. Tesla [ft. Herbie Hancock]
03. Cold Dead
04. Fkn Dead
05. Never Catch Me [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
06. Dead Man's Tetris [ft. Snoop Dogg and Captain Murphy]
07. Turkey Dog Coma
09. Coronus, the Terminator
10. Siren Song [ft. Angel Deradoorian]
12. Ready Err Not
13. Eyes Above
14. Moment of Hesitation [ft. Herbie Hancock]
15. Descent Into Madness [ft. Thundercat]
16. The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep [ft. Captain Murphy]
17. Obligatory Cadence
18. Your Potential / The Beyond [ft. Niki Randa]
19. The Protest