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DJ Shadow’s triumphant new LP is part evolution, part class reunion

Photo: Derick Daily

There’s a thundering blast of sound that opens Our Pathetic Age, like someone was testing out a town’s tornado warning system, only to get distracted by the varying tones they were capable of producing. A minute later, it fades away, to the rattling hiss of a staticky swell. It’s almost the sonic equivalent of a warning sticker—“this isn’t going to be easy”—serving to prep listeners for the difficult journey that follows: Challenging, dark, and ambitious, this may be the most baldly confrontational and alienating work the artist has ever produced.

This isn’t to say DJ Shadow, real name Josh Davis, has reinvented himself as some avant-garde musician. This is still very recognizably the work of the man who concocted the genre-defining sounds of Endtroducing….. and The Private Press, and who more recently found fresh inspiration and creative heights with 2016’s The Mountain Will Fall. New tracks like “Slingblade” or the jazz-driven “Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law” retain the beat-based grooves that have always defined his output, with the warmth and fuzzy synths that draw listeners in. But other tracks push away with equally ferocious intent, defying any attempt to absorb the album as a smooth and cohesive whole. It’s not just because Our Pathetic Age is a double album, split between his almost wholly instrumental experiments on the first half, and a series of boldly shifting hip-hop collaborations on the second. Within both of these fundamentally stand-alone records are jarring, harsh tracks that shake up the flow of the music.

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Nowhere is this clearer than on “Juggernaut,” which delivers an introductory “My name is…” before cycling through a half dozen different tones, textures, and rhythms, starting and stopping with Shadow’s typically restless chop-and-mix programming. But where his songs normally feel of a piece with the tracks around them on a record, “Juggernaut” is willfully disorienting, firing out explosions of noise and erupting into harried breakbeat patterns before exploding once more into percussion-free declarations of the title. “Firestorm” follows it with a stately aplomb—the artist’s first fully orchestral piece, piano melodies and strings lathered across snares—but the air of unpredictability has already set in. “Weightless” wavers and slides its notes like a staggering drunk, “Rosie” and “If I Died Today” offer upbeat throwback grooves with vocal flourishes that emphasize an open-hearted humanity behind the icy licks, and by the time the first half concludes on the mournful keys of “We Are Always Alone,” the sense of isolation and uncertainty has become the dominant theme. Davis has described it as a “hopeful, vibrant album,” and while the vibrancy is plain as day, the hope struggles to cut through the tension.

Then Nas shows up, spitting hot fire, and it all changes. The second LP kicks off with the rapper lending his flow to “Drone Warfare,” an old-school banger that would’ve sounded right at home in the Endtroducing….. era, and that sets the pace for everything that follows. There’s a darkness to these hip-hop tracks that matches the ominous aura of the more instrumental first half, from the mini-Wu-Tang reunion of the overdriven “Rain On Snow” to the stark minimalism of “Small Colleges (Stay With Me)” featuring MCs Wiki and Paul Banks.

But DJ Shadow again rallies his more commercially minded tendencies to include a track so infectiously catchy (“Rocket Fuel”), it immediately stakes its claim as the “Nobody Speak” of Our Pathetic Age, a funky and hummable team-up with De La Soul ready to achieve cultural ubiquity with its undeniable hook. Speaking of “Nobody Speak,” Shadow brings back Run The Jewels for another contribution, “Kings & Queens,” which sails along with soulful choral synths and a skittering beat reminiscent of mid-period Kanye. But the most affecting reunion on this back half would be “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” a signature Shadow composition of piano trills and Mo’ Wax-style beats that finds him back together with his old Solesides compatriots, Lateef The Truthspeaker and Blackalicious’ Gif Of Gab. By the time the title track unfolds (with a Sam Herring vocal groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on Random Access Memories), whatever artistic battle Shadow is fighting, it sounds like he’s won.

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If the first half of Our Pathetic Age is DJ Shadow pushing forward, his muse challenging and expanding his sonic palette in ways not always accessible or satisfactory, the back half is his class reunion, a trip through nearly all 30 years of his career that revisits sounds and styles across his output, rejiggering them for an anxiety-inducing, more contemporary aural aesthetic. It’s a triumphant blast of hip-hop revivalism to quell the stressed-out vibes of the first LP; together, the two create an impressive testament to DJ Shadow’s creative nomadism, uncompromising and imposing in its aggressive musical explorations.

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Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.