Seen by Shadow as his "biggest and most ambitious" release thus far, Our Pathetic Age without question plays out like an onerous undertaking. In makeup, the double album seems like a personal challenge. It's split into instrumental and vocal suites, both of which were produced strictly by Shadow with no other musicians, and is at once his most solitary and collaborative work. The title communicates the dominant outlook sensed even in the instrumentals. Shadow has suffused tracks with negative qualities at various points across the years -- as far back as "What Does Your Soul Look Like, Pt. 2" -- and finds new ways to evoke states of unease and dread. He reconfigures developments made by the L.A. beat scene he inspired, trap, drill, and U.K. bass, and abruptly changes course with dramatic piano-and-strings themes suitable for an environmental disaster documentary. At its least stimulating, this half resembles anonymous if superbly crafted library music. Most of the tracks, including the high points -- the droning intro "Nature Always Wins," the hyper-fidgety "My Lonely Room," and the utterly peculiar and frolicsome vocal-trio flip "Rosie" -- are nothing alike.
The back half of the standard edition is of similar variety and length, just long enough to accommodate around two dozen rappers and singers. The gathering shows off Shadow's hip-hop clout and reinforces, with little relief, the producer's bleak view of the present. The tone is set by Nas and Pharoahe Monch on "Drone Warfare," in which the latter's "Check my beautiful black matte Kevlar suit" -- cutting through drums that batter like 1990 Public Enemy or 1996 Chemical Brothers -- qualifies as one of the most boastful lines. Combat quickly becomes a concern that's secondary to the societal impact of the smartphone, still the object of Shadow's ire. In the most vehement, rather didactic "C.O.N.F.O.R.M.," it's cursed as a tool of sedation, distraction, and surveillance by Lateef the Truthspeaker, Gift of Gab, and Infamous Taz, moving from verse to verse like the rappers lack the time to let the rolling beat breathe. (In a way, it's surprising that Shadow and Lateef didn't cut a sequel to "Mashin' on the Motorway" titled "HANG UP AND DRIVE.") Breaking from the script somewhat are De La Soul on the hyped-up "Rocket Fuel" and the returning Run the Jewels on the biographical narrative "Kings & Queens." Between these highlights and the remainder, Shadow continually switches it up with trap gospel and despondent disco at the extremes and window-rattling drums a near constant. Like the online living some of the rappers rail against, the album can be fatiguing with extended periods of exposure, and there's an excess of information to process.