Earlier this year I sat in a quiet café with Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, to discuss his cosmic, mortality-facing fifth LP, You’re Dead!Throughout the chat he exuded serenity, unspooling sentences with practiced elegance, but a switch flicked when I asked for his thoughts on the afterlife. Suddenly wired and prophetic, Ellison leaned forward. "I think there’s more," he whispered over the salt shaker. "There’s another experience, something beyond our understanding. It's gonna be more confusing and way, way surreal."
Many listeners of You’re Dead! will relate to Ellison’s reading. Most reviews lauded the producer’s inquisitive treatment of death—he waxed astrophysical, flung open cosmic doorways, faced the abyss and found God in a kick-drum. And that drive for sprawling electronic transcendence reflects a small but highly concentrated aesthetic that’s developed over the last half-decade. Crucial to FlyLo’s legacy are his "digital maximalist" contemporaries like Rustie, Hudson Mohawke and, more recently, Evian Christ and PC Music, who all capitalize on our digital access to cultures past and present. They seem to surpass our earthly boundaries and sculpt warped new dimensions, and their widescreen sounds can resemble vast and impressive visions of death.
But the more I listened, the less I recognized FlyLo as a brave spiritual spaceman. Instead, what emerged from his music was an exquisite, maximalist denial of death. There are signs all over but most instructive was Shintaro Kago’s album artwork, a trippy depiction of smirking skeletons and cartoonish gore. Here, the slapstick humor represents Ellison's trying to side with death—he nudges its ribs, laughs at its jokes, maybe a little too loudly. And as the jammed-to-burst songs escalate in scope and intensity, you start to sense that he’s not embracing mortality but frantically repressing it.
It’s a feature of our information age that we reject mysterious concepts like death. Today, ignorance is a question of choosing what not to know: we tap for nutritional info, tap for celebrity birthdays, tap for particulars of our favourite assassination. So it seems bizarre that our existential beef with impermanence should persist—not just unresolved but intensified. Not only are we just as helpless as ever, we’re also more aware of our helplessness—we tap for 10 Inspirational Quotes on Mortality—and it’s unnerving to think that we, unlike our social profiles and spam filters, won’t be around to celebrate our Tumblr blog’s 100th birthday.
Confusingly, we also live in an age when the dead just won’t go away. We relive their experiences in biopics, vintage concert footage and sometimes in hologram form. Dominating the box office are zombies and vampires. Our reluctance to let go reflects our inability to fathom mortality, an insecurity that’s perhaps most evident in music. To despise death is to live excessively, and that defensive commitment to life is rarely more obvious than in rock. From day one, its icons have smoked, snorted, slugged and shot up, all popular displays of arrogance in death’s presence.
But while popular electronic music is hardly immune to excess—for a while chemical indulgence was its raison d’être—it’s true that, until relatively recently, it felt straightforwardly escapist; if a track blew your head off, it did so in the colloquial sense. Now, as the internet spreads excessive record-collecting beyond the realm of fusty crate-diggers, and as maximalism finds a major outlet in stars like Kanye, it’s possible to investigate deeper. In Retromania, Simon Reynolds explains that the "standard psychoanalytic interpretation of obsessive collecting is that it is a way of warding off death," often stemming from childhood anxiety and an excessive desire to organize the world. But as Slavoj Žižek says in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, "A desire is never just a desire itself - it is a desire to continue to desire." In other words, the point of excess is not to sate, but to prolong, which is why the collector will always covet the "missing piece." To live excessively is to chase a dream of eternal, fast-burning desire, one in which reality can be postponed indefinitely and invested into objects that will outlive their collector.
Something the digital maximalists share is that they are evidently rabid collectors, self-consciously perverting styles into a cosmic, cosmopolitan brew. PC Music, particularly, is fit to burst with cross-cultural influences—any 30-second snippet might trespass on hip-hop, eskibeat and dancehall, and Steph Kretowicz has explored J-pop’s vital bond in an extensive Fader piece on the "aesthetic of excess." But while we tend to characterise digital maximalism by its sonic excess, another consistent feature is the subtle undercurrent of loss. Often it’s not till after the headrush that you notice, like finding a 'help me' note sewn into your snazzy new jeans.
FlyLo is a rare digital maximalist whose music actually feels full. Each ephemeral moment seems intricate and vast, a detailed snapshot depicting part of a wider atomic chaos. But his maximalist M.O. feels more repressive than liberated, and it’s necessary to dig up the roots of excess to see just why that’s so. As well as its basic subconscious rationale—to distance ourselves from death, to flatter life, to impress ourselves upon the present—there is also a deeper link to mortality, namely that dense, idea-packed art has a magical ability to actually change time’s passage.
Vital to our understanding of postmodern innovations (especially on the Internet) is that information, memory and time are peas in a metaphysical pod. There are two components: first, the way we perceive time is obviously synonymous with time itself, so anything that alters our perception is effectively reshaping reality. More intriguingly, the more new stuff we have to process at any given micro-second, the longer our brains take to unpack it. This psychological quirk generates the observation beloved of elderly relatives that "the years just fly by," ever faster. It’s not senile hyperbole: as they grow accustomed to the world, their minds slowly learn to maneuver it without hesitation. Time is elastic by nature.
The take-home for anyone preoccupied with mortality is that days, and lives, are lengthened by attention to detail. Like postmodernist authors such as David Foster Wallace—whose footnotes are IRL hyperlinks, stretching time outward rather than forward—digital maximalists have a tendency to capture 'too much' of life; to leave no mundane thought or influence unexplored; to be both precise and sprawling, in the moment and everywhere but. Subsequently they dictate the pace of our listening experience like puppet masters. When Tom LeClair says, in The Art of Excess, that the postmodern era’s dense sacred texts "exceed the time’s literary conventions and thereby master the time," it works in both senses.
Postmodernism’s hyper-attentiveness to detail and digression—see Infinite Jest or Synecdoche, New York—is a key feature of digital maximalism. FlyLo is the obvious case, with so much happening it often takes a few listens to even realise there’s a song there. Likewise, sonically promiscuous tracks like Sophie's "Hard" span not just multicultural influences but corporate, kitsch and satirical tones, all at once, sending your brain’s symbol-translator into overdrive. Again, the aim is to dazzle and overwhelm, but what lingers is a kind of hopelessness. Maxed out on processed gloop and fractured grime beats, there’s something awkwardly decayed in PC Music’s best stuff—it feels like the barren aftermath of excess, a dull awareness of finitude.
Thanks to our near-infinite access to the past via Youtube, we feel like a generation bathing in eternal moments. In turn, we comprehensively document the present, a pastime that for most remains fun but for some makes an unhealthy obsession. In her piece on The Awl, Aimee Cliff pinpoints an absurd profusion of "together/forever" riffs in PC Music’s output, tracing the lyrical trope to the post-rave era and its cliché promises of everlasting bliss. The grim irony manifests in Hannah Diamond’s creepy lullaby "Attachment", in which, having seen a relationship disintegrate, she reinvests her passion into her ex’s image: "I can see you clearly now I’ve saved you as a picture on my phone," she chants cutely. It’s typical of PC Music’s universe, where human contact is the stuff of dreams, screens and imagination. On "Hey QT", QT sings that "I feel your hands on my body, every time you think of me," but again, having navigated the music’s shelling of some nebulous terror, you’re swept into a mournful tide, a sense of something irreplaceably lost.
Stripping back the hyperbole, death remains key to boundary-pushing artists simply because it’s deep, universal and endlessly interpretable. But more than ever our morbid fascination is rich in complexity, wrapped in subconscious riddles. On screens we see round-the-clock updates and hurried reports, data charts of unfathomable horror. But while glued to the screen, gripped by our own helplessness, at the same time we feel silently misled, not informed so much as exploited by the clarity of images. Warzones, dismemberment, collateral casualties—surely these things belong in the abstract? This is the existential preoccupation of our time, but it also explains how mysterious, imaginative records like You’re Dead! hit home. Not by facing up to death—leave that to the minimalists—but by glimpsing it, squeezing eyes shut and running away for dear life.