This double-album odyssey contains two distinct halves, each of which function spectacularly well on its own, but when combined lead to a surprisingly listenable journey and not an overlong slog.
Our Pathetic Age, the newest album by turntable demigod DJ Shadow, has a name that sounds like it was created by someone who has strong opinions about the “OK, Boomer” meme. But anyone who has followed the producer’s career knows that he’s far smarter than all of that, and on his sixth album—and his first since 2016’s The Mountain Will Fall—he manages to delve into modern angst without sounding like he’s waving his cane at the listener, and instead even does so with an air of optimism.
This double-album odyssey contains two distinct halves, each of which function spectacularly well on its own, but when combined lead to a surprisingly listenable journey and not an overlong slog. The first disc is a sharp, 40-minute run of Shadow, armed with a few vocal samples and the strength of his ability to create compelling and inviting instrumental hip-hop beats. This half is, by design, much easier to get lost in. Few human or humanlike vocals exist in this space, save for tracks like “Juggernaut” and “Rosie,” which are built around singular vocal samples, the former track succeeding based solely on beats created from the robotic intonation “My name is Juggernaut,” which miraculously never gets exhausting.
And really, nothing about the first half wears out its welcome, and those 40 minutes melt away. Despite the grim tone set by the album’s title, this section is vibrant and often life-affirming, even in the moments where it wordlessly invokes the emotions of living in the modern age. Shadow doesn’t go for hard-hitting as often as he could, instead opting for finding moments of beauty. “If I Died Today” pairs an infectious and almost soothing downtempo beat with echoing chipmunk vocals, as though The College Dropout-era Kanye West had blessed the album with a craftsman-like track without a verse; the end result is something that should be obnoxious, but feels vital to the fabric of this half of the album. Doubly so for “My Lonely Room,” a jumble of Aphexesque breakbeats and what sounds like a typewriter sample.
The album’s second half is when the fireworks really kick in. Shadow is no longer alone, and every song is packed with guests—some expected (Run the Jewels, returning after their great appearance on The Mountain Will Fall), some less so (Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands? Paul Banks of Interpol?!). What unites everyone, from Herring to De La Soul, is that they sound angry enough to be on par with Run the Jewels, who sound especially fired up here. In turn, Shadow’s production, while still top-notch, has a lot more muscle behind it, enough to carry his guest stars.
This half is packed with classic rappers, to the degree that it feels like an Avengers-level event in the first four songs. “Drone Warfare” hits you with Nas and Pharoahe Monch, and just one song later, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck turn in “Rain on Snow,” their best team-up in years. Then there’s “Rocket Fuel,” a party-ready banger that brings in De La Soul for their most inviting collaboration since Gorillaz’s “Superfast Jellyfish” (though over time, it could grow to be as raucously indispensable as their crown jewel, “Feel Good Inc.”). Meanwhile, Gift of Gab and Lateef rap over a piano repetition that sounds like an “X-Files” theme sendup on “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.”
The only downfall of the second disc is that the rush of guest stars makes it a little harder for anything to stick right away. Shadow’s stars hang around for a song each, only to be replaced by someone else. None of their verses are bad, exactly, but songs like “Been Use Ta” and “Kings & Queens” make one hungry for more of Pusha T and Run the Jewels, respectively (though, is there ever enough of either?). On the other end of the spectrum, Future Islands’ Herring turns the album standout “Our Pathetic Age” into a flawless gem, almost enough for you to want an entire album’s worth of Shadow/Herring making beautiful disco together.
In the lead-up to Our Pathetic Age, Shadow laid out his plans for the album by saying, “There’s songs that are inspired by this energy and seek to harness it, to make sense of it. In some cases, there’s attempts to salve the wound; in others, the songs merely observe but don’t offer solutions.” He succeeds in this to an impressive degree, even in the opaquest moments. The album also presents a potential art project/challenge for clever listeners: because it’s split up into two sections, it frees all of the songs on each to be resequenced by those who might want to see how the two halves mix together. Even without any kind of setlist scrambling, though, the flow of the album feels well-planned, and though it takes 40 minutes for Shadow’s guests to show up to the party, the transition between the two sections doesn’t feel clunky or jarring. Hats off to DJ Shadow for making an “Old Man Yells at Cloud” record that doesn’t sound like it was ever intended to be one.