The redheaded mallard on the cover of Slugabed's second album, Inherit the Earth, can embody whatever you want it to, but there's something in his downcast gaze that feels familiar, like watching the world burn while being powerless to quell the blaze. Or maybe it's just a dumb bird, but this London producer's new strange opus does indeed play, at times, like a dark-humored deadpan dystopia – more observation than statement, a rendering of our modern times in eerie atmosphere, rumbling bass, bright blips, laser jags, melodies that either creep or comfort, and all kinds of unpredictable, hypnotic rhythms.
It's going on four years since a Slugabed album, but the man's been busy – running a label, working with others, and making a two scrapped LPs' worth of cuts similar in vibe to the hyper-pop of 2014's Coolest EP – happier, forest-y, more "plinky-plonky." But none of those would-be followups began with a schoolgirl calling an arms dealer to buy a tank, as Inherit the Earth does. There's something in that moment of pretty innocence approaching the cliff's edge of utter chaos that's reflected not only in this set's title, which has been used by both the Bible and a '90s video game about talking animals who survive human extinction, but also in the first song "Stupid Earth." That dreamy scene, colored by warm sax and chill keys, is constantly warping just so, or being smashed over a hard beat and roasted with synth. Slugabed has long been an ace storyteller, even without words, and this is his most vivid, consistent work yet.
Which isn't to say Inherit the Earth is bereft of lyrics or even lighter moments. "Gold" plays like a trippy merger of Y2K pop and contemporary alt-R&B thanks, in part, to vocal and production contributions from Hairy Hands and Peter Lyons. Album ender "Earth Is Gone Sorry" is also less bleak than the name would suggest – Lum's soulful voice and the shimmering interstellar textures imply the universe may be better off without our planet making a mess of things. And for all of the slasher-flick effects of "Very Serious Puzzle" and speaker-blowing bass of "Infinite Wave," there is also the thick, glorious funk of "Time 2 Let It Go" and silly digitized brass of "Feeding Time."
It's telling that "A Thousand Tiny Hands," one of the most beautiful and discomfiting songs here, is a barely edited single-take drunken piano improvisation about eating drugs – left to ourselves, we are all simultaneously tending toward both annihilation and transcendence. Certainly there is something nice about a duck, but ducks don't understand music and only a screwy person-mind like Slugabed's could discover the humanity in a roiling sea of sound, shape all that into an album of serious depth, and leave listeners with more questions than they started with. While the rest of us live now trapped in the guts of Inherit the Earth, trying to solve its mysteries, he'll be out roaming the English countryside, listening to Nick Drake and feeding seed to fowl.