Steven Ellison has been preoccupied with death for a long time. Before his latest LP as Flying Lotus, he released Until the Quiet Comes—a title which seems pretty self-explanatory—and even earlier, his LA beat-fusion classic Cosmogramma was greatly inspired by his mother's passing. Over the years, friends and mentors such as J Dilla, pianist Austin Peralta, DJ Mehdi, and many others in Ellison's life have died tragically young, and they've all continued to influence his creative work.
On You're Dead!, these morbid themes are put on display for all to see. Ellison uses his talent for rich, cinematic production to attempt his most ambitious project yet, bridging free jazz, instrumental hip-hop, prog-rock, and IDM to recount a journey from death to the afterlife. Ellison has never been one to shy away from a grandiose storyline on his albums, and this time around, his roster of collaborators is stacked. Unfortunately though, all of this talent fails to coalesce around Ellison's grand vision, as You're Dead! is dragged down by stuffed arrangements, clipped pacing, and a sense of control-freak auteurism that can be smothering.
Where Cosmogramma used pain and loss as a starting point to venture into unknown worlds, You're Dead! eschews true vulnerability for a campy, cartoon-horror vision of death. Ellison's Captain Murphy rap alias offers some of the more awkward moments on the LP, with spots on "Dead Man's Tetris" and "The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep" that paint an Odd Future-meets-Tim Burton vibe using rudimentary rhymes. That being said, Snoop Dogg does offer a dependably suave verse on the former cut, and Kendrick Lamar's whirlwind flow on "Never Catch Me" is also impressive for its breathless, bright-eyed conviction.
Though Flying Lotus regulars like bassist Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, singer Niki Randa, and string composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson deliver some incredible performances on You're Dead!, Ellison's strict direction tends to leave the musicians far less breathing room than they deserve. "Tesla" is a showcase of Bruner's superhuman bass skills and Herbie Hancock's iconic Rhodes, but just as it gels into a substantial groove, Ellison jump cuts to the next track. This is a recurring issue throughout You're Dead!. Ellison recorded each instrument on the album separately, and it shows. Despite the record being heavily steeped in jazz, it's difficult to create or capture spontaneity when the players aren't riffing off each other in the moment. Given that Ellison also dictated the parts, what could have been improvised bliss by a collection of skilled musicians is instead lost to his own process. However, he seems perfectly content to stitch a narrative out of the resulting collection of short interludes.
When Ellison does let a song pass the two-minute mark, standouts like "Never Catch Me" and "Coronus, the Terminator" take form. The latter fuses a sparse, mystical production to a haunting melody from an unidentified choir, one which seemingly involves every guest singer on the LP (and perhaps even Ellison himself). Another highlight is like "Siren Song," which features Dirty Projectors vocalist Angel Deradoorian and reaches a high point with her panned exhalations and the sublime arrangement, but it's clear that Ellison could've pushed it even further.
With You're Dead!, Flying Lotus has made a truly filmic record, something akin to a musical retelling of Enter the Void that uses free jazz and beats instead of exposition. Listeners pass away, wander through dark and demented worlds, and finally come to the realization that no one ever really dies. However, for an LP about the infinite unknown, it isn't that meditative or self-aware. Where Cosmogramma and Los Angeles made plot secondary, You're Dead! forces its cast to bend to an unwieldy storyline that ultimately only makes complete sense inside Ellison's head.