Despite his grinning, perma-blunted veneer, there’s always been a serious side to Steve Ellison’s music. Certainly the development of his sound has taken centre stage, but broader themes and contexts have consistently hovered on the periphery of his frequently mind bending creations. Now thirty years old and at the apex of his popularity, Ellison seemingly feels confident enough to bring these once secondary elements to the foreground with a concept album about that trickiest of subjects: Death. Bereaved of both his parents and several of his closest family members and friends, Ellison’s own life has undoubtedly provided much of the inspiration for this latest creative turn. ‘You’re Dead!’ however isn’t a morbid reflection on personal tragedy, something that should be obvious from the typically irreverent/confounding placement of the exclamation mark in the title. Instead, the album is a genuine ‘musical journey’ about what happens when we pass into the next life – an endeavor that would sound trite in the hands of an artist without Ellison’s enviable level of technical proficiency and boundless imagination.
Musically, it had been made public some time ago that this was to be – in his own words, a “jazz fusion” album. Obviously keen to make good on that promise, Ellison begins ‘You’re Dead!’ with ferocious Bitches Brew era Miles Davis-esque noodling that instantly removes us from the meticulously meditative electronic dreamscapes of his previous effort ‘Until The Quiet Comes’. A fixture of the FlyLo sound since 2010’s ‘Cosmogramma’, on this record the virtuoso fretboard acrobatics of bassist Thundercat figure more prominently than ever before from the offset, even upstaging the twinkling keys of Ellison’s idol Herbie Hancock on second track ‘Tesla’. In fact it’s the bass that proves the only true constant throughout, as the opening section careers from frazzled hyperactivity to breathy serenity in five frantic minutes as part of a suite that communicates the uncertainty surrounding man’s journey away from mortality.
From this tempestous beginning the record arrives at one of its early high points with ‘Never Catch Me’ – the Kendrick Lamar collaboration that rightly generated much early buzz. As with previous features from the likes of Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu, Ellison is careful to maintain the integrity of his project’s concept and thus uses Lamar’s shapeshifting scattershot flow as a tool rather than a glossy embellishment, having him ride skillyfully along Thundercat’s arpeggios with impressive ease. Lamar for his part fully jumps on board with the theme – as demonstrated by carefully considered couplets like ‘Reminisce on my wonder years and I wonder here/Sentiments of my words ain’t been so sincere’. An appearance from Snoop Dogg alongside Ellison’s baritoned alter ego Captain Murphy follows on the decidedly glitchier but equally well arranged ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’, with both tracks sure to leave fans hoping Ellison continues to rope in rappers on future projects.
After allowing space for two of West Coast Hip-Hop’s defining voices to meditate on the afterlife, Ellison steers ‘You’re Dead!’ into more orthodox (for him) territory – with the space Jazz stylings of ‘Turkey Dog Coma’ and ‘Stirring’ laying on a calm that marks the beginning of the acceptance stage of death’s long journey. ‘Coronus The Terminator’ takes this acceptance and escalates it to a level of bliss that skirts the line between post-coital and spiritual with its breathy choruses recalling an intoxicating mix of ‘Stankonia’ era Outkast, Funkadelic circa ‘Maggot Brain’ and Ellison’s celebrated late aunt Alice Coltrane. The esoteric mysticism of Coltrane provides the pervading mood for the subsequent section, with the likes of ‘Ready Err Not’ and ‘Eyes Above’ floating with a soulful tranquility that many longtime followers will regard as classic FlyLo.
This relative state of zen is merely temporary as ‘Descent Into Madness’ does what it says on the tin via Ellison and Thundercat revisiting the new-age weirdness of last year’s ‘Apocalypse’ as they alternate between artfully unsettling and jarring. This unease is compounded with ‘The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep’ on which Captain Murphy creepily warbles off a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs to “…take the edge away”. Following this down note, we enter the album’s final tonal phase and the end of it’s conceptual journey, with Ellison’s former girlfriend and frequent collaborator Niki Randa laying down airy multi-tracked vocals that draw us close to heaven’s gate. It’s a grandstand finish, but in the blink of an eye the album is over.
Recently interviewed in The Fader, Ellison spoke of how he saw his role as an artist as that of someone who, “disrupts the flavour”. Listening to ‘You’re Dead!’ its highly apparent how much he truly subscribes to this. Its an admirable postion for any artist to take – let alone one of his vaunted status, although the abiding feeling from his fifth album is that Ellison is perhaps trying a little too hard. Across merely 38 minutes he leaves scant room for either himself or the listener to breathe, with each track gone nearly as soon as it arrives. The range of styles on show and the ambition of the project as a whole is impressive, although Ellison has nothing to prove to anyone on his abilities in either of those departments. Not an unenjoyable work by any stretch of the imagination, you still can’t help but feel within the frenzied whole of this grandiose piece that the component parts have lost some of their sparkle.
‘You’re Dead!’ is out now on Warp. Buy it here.