Listen again to the opening seconds of Cosmogramma. Now do the same with “All In,” the opening track of Until the Quiet Comes, Steven Ellison’s fourth record as Flying Lotus. Everything you need to know about the difference between these two records is contained there, each album’s essence potently distilled. If you like what you hear in the latter case, then good for you. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to reserve the right to be seriously disappointed.
Until the Quiet Comes is the negation of everything that made Cosmogramma great. It is relentlessly beige. It is “mature.” It is a chai latte. It is loungetronica. It is David Sanborn. It is Nora Jones. It is über proficient. It is no longer the sound of the future. In its obstinate blandness, it is a surprisingly arduous listen even though it only lasts 45 minutes. It is coming straight from Warp to a cocktail bar near you and, soon after that, a Starbucks. It is the sound of an artist in retreat from the shadow of his own success.
What’s more, Ellison knows all of this. Because that was exactly his intention. Here he is in an interview with Britt Brown (Not Not Fun) in the most recent issue of The Wire: “I like the idea of pulling back,” he says. “I made this really grandiose kind of statement, now I wanted to make this quiet statement, trim all the fat and just get a small, tight story out of it, instead of trying to tell the story of the birth of the universe.”
The funny thing is that Brown’s clearly not that impressed either. The start of his piece is all about the impossibility of Ellison’s ever following up a “canonical,” “Faustian,” “headstone” album like Cosmogramma effectively. Not only was that record great, he says, it had the absolute perfect narrative. On the back of a couple of decent but basically scene-specific releases, Ellison’s mother died, a terrible personal tragedy. So this, he thought, was his time to soar. “Cosmogramma felt fated,” Brown writes. “Destiny, death, redemption, orchestral beauty, street swagger, bitcrushed bleeps. How do you top an eclipse?” His answer: “By not trying to block out the sun at all. By flying the lotus lower.” Or, in other words, you don’t even try.
Here, the politics of the cover story are clearly at work. It’s an elegant bit of writing. Brown does everything he can to veil his critique of the guy with his face on the magazine’s cover. Having established Cosmogramma as so impossibly good Ellison’s tactical retreat begins to feel inevitable, his actual criticisms of the album are so hilariously thin on the ground they can’t help but come off as evasive. There are apparently “some tender, glitchy Casiotone-style passages on Quiet that ring too cute for comfort.” And then, after that understatement, we learn that “where the album really suffers” (drum roll please) “is in the transitions between songs.” Which surely deserves some sort of award for being the slightest, quietest critique imaginable.
None of this is really intended as a criticism of Brown’s piece, which is genuinely elegant, considering how constrained he was by the politics of form. But it’s important that the rest of the critical community doesn’t go the same way. Cosmogramma was formidable. There’s no doubt about that. But that doesn’t mean FlyLo has earned the right to have this latest release treated lightly. It’s bland. I don’t like it. And I’ll make no apologies for that.
As for converting this disappointment into a number, I feel obliged to give the record a 2.5 simply on the basis of its painstaking proficiency. Until the Quiet Comes isn’t bad, exactly. It’s just definitely not good either. Which is to say, if you were hoping for something great, something worthy of its estimable predecessor, it’s bound to feel more like a 0. A great big flaccid disappointment.