First Impressions: Flying Lotus, “You’re Dead!”

flyinglotusThe title of the new Flying Lotus album is not a joke, nor is it a red herring: You’re Dead! is singularly focused on human mortality, albeit with the crooked smile and occasional cartoonish energy implied by the exclamation point. There have been other albums about death, of course, but none quite like this one: Some of the latter-day Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin albums focused on death almost to the point of fetishizing it, the light at the end of the tunnel casting life’s final moments in sepia tones, preserving them in amber. Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, meanwhile, wed gritty realism to apocalyptic poetry and tall tales, the songs all frayed nerves and dark thoughts, the narrators marching ever toward the inevitable. On some of Dylan’s recent albums, he acknowledges that yes, even he is a mortal—and he shrugs and does a little soft-shoe. You’re Dead! is as much about life as it is death, human experience rendered all the more wondrous and profound because it is so temporary. The album is a protest against death; it’s offered under no delusion that death will be vanquished by our puny outstretched fists, but rather comes with the zealous knowing that even the act of protest itself is meaningful, and life-affirming.

The album is what sometimes gets referred to as a mind-fuck, as it inhabits its own unique space, its own astral plane that requires you to adjust your thinking and suspend your expectations, allowing yourself to get swept up in its own surreal logic. That’s not to say that it is a difficult record, though, and neither is it insular or exclusive. It is opening and accommodating to anyone. There are recognizable threads of jazz, R&B, electronic, gospel, and rock music contained here, and the music is just as visceral, exciting, and hooky as all that implies. It just moves so quickly—its 19 songs forming a more-or-less continuous suite of music, the mood radically changing every minute or two—that at first the effect is dizzying. Befitting its subject matter, You’re Dead! races to mark everything off its list, to savor as many flavors and colors and experiences as possible before the whole thing ends.

It begins with a kind of prelude, but quickly accelerates: Its first four songs form a breakneck suite of rock and hard bop and electronic flourishes, no less a luminary than Herbie Hancock showing up on one song to lay down some piano cords, roaring saxophone grounding others in the grit and heavy swing of jazz and soul music. (The Hancock track, more than any other, illuminates this album’s one flaw: The songs are all so good that you wish some of them would last longer; Herbie’s contributions come and go so quickly as to barely register, at least on first listen.) It culminates in a centerpiece track with Kendrick Lamar, who raps a defiant battle cry, staring death in the face and spitting in its eye. It’s emblematic of the record’s fighting spirit, and it brings those first few minutes to such a feverish boil that, unsurprisingly, the remainder of the album feels like a long cool-down, a necessary interlude for the listener’s pulse to slow.

That’s not to say the rest of the album is a bore. It keeps moving at a fairly brisk pace; it contains much humor, especially on a delightfully warped song called “Dead Man’s Tetris,” on which Snoop Dog and Captain Murphy (aka Flying Lotus in singer/songwriter mode) address us from the great beyond. It also gets pretty freaky, especially on the spooky, dark incantation “The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep,” which comes right after a song called “Descent into Madness.” The last song is called “The Protest,” wherein a chorus of voices promise us that they’ll live forever. We all know it isn’t true, but what of it? This music does what jazz and blues and soul music have always done: It sings; it goes on signing; it invites us to join in; it just gets louder with the acknowledgement that yes, someday, the song will end.

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