Cerebral and endlessly beguiling head trip that it is, Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma is also pretty easy to listen to, whether you choose to take a casual soak in its atmosphere as it spills out of your stereo speakers or slip on a pair of headphones for a more studious jam session. There’s just one rule: Marvel all you want at Steve Ellison’s endlessly inventive arrangements, but don’t try to guess where he’s going next. There’s simply no left-brain logic flexible enough for what Ellison’s doing here, with every track an unpredictable collage of solid beats and transitory textures, to say nothing of the remarkable distance covered over the course of the record.
The early standouts center around the dazzling interplay between Thundercat’s mind-meltingly fast bass runs and periodic salvos of strings courtesy of the Badu-approved Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. The former gets an especially stunning showcase on “Pickled!,” while the latter first surfaces on the cinematic “Intro/A Cosmic Drama,” after which Ellison detours through some brooding Boards of Canada terrain before bringing the two together in the spectacular second half of “Zodiac Shit.” Feeling the groove? Good, because both Thundercat and Atwood-Ferguson are on hiatus for the next two tracks. Ellison’s glitchy arcade samples jump into the foreground on “Computer Face/Pure Being,” and the galvanizing beat to that track leads seamlessly into “...And the World Laughs with You.” Up to that point, Cosmogramma is strictly instrumental, but the game changes again as none other than Thom Yorke takes a turn at the mic.
This might sound like a recipe for motion sickness, but Ellison remains coolly competent, always holding a few pieces of his densely layered compositions constant for the rest to swirl around. His instincts are fantastically sharp: For every track that blows through its best idea just a little too quickly (enjoy the gentle humming of “Satelllliiiiiteee” while it lasts), there are four more that nail their pacing perfectly. Ellison is only 26, but he’s got a veteran’s knack for intuitive maneuvering, manipulating his beats and found sounds with the deftness appropriate to his favored genres (consider: the play of structure and improv in modern jazz, the anything-goes grammar of the mixtape game, or the fluid dance-floor dynamics of a kick-ass playlist). Sure, there’s the odd miscalculation: The banging hip-hop of “Do the Astral Plane” interrupts the moody middle passage of the album, for example, but as its also one of the best single cuts on the whole disc, you’ll be hard pressed to protest its incongruous groove.
Ellison may be all kinds of intellectual, but on Cosmogramma he never loses sight of the less reflective pleasures of his craft. If anything at all can be said to unite the blue-note jazz of “Arkestry,” the gauzy house of “Mmmhmm,” and the string-laden disco of “Galaxy in Janai,” it’s that all of these styles—plus the IDM, hip-hop, rave, and funk influences with which they’re blended elsewhere—have their origins in urban club scenes. For all the otherworldly terrain that Mr. Lotus covers, his freeform space odyssey owes its pleasures to an experience that’s wholly more terrestrial: a night spent hopping between house parties and dance clubs, soaking up the sounds of the city. The surprising achievement of Cosmogramma is how capably it reinterprets that kind of innately communal vibe into private introspection without losing a bit of its energy along the way.