Questions –  Agency (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

If Exponents demonstrated Agency’s distain for generic boundaries and for following other people’s pre-conceived ideas of what one musical style or another should conform to, Question’s continues very much down the same non-conformist path. Having made a name for taking strands of broadly urban music – R&B, hip-hop, soul and the like – and taking it to strange, illogical conclusions, this latest album shows that there is a lot of sonic territory yet to be explored. As R&B seems content to become a modern substitute for throw away pop and hip-hop gets taken to a lowest common denominator by a wave of mumbling, bedroom rappers looking for a quick shot at fame, Agency’s musical machinations remind me more of the early pioneers of UK’s underground 4AD label such as A R Kane who mixed soulful sounds with dream pop soundscapes.

Questions is a concept album, of sorts, or at least an album of concepts, scenes and scenarios that follow the development of a new relationship, the ups and downs (and more downs), the doubts, the questions, the joy and the sadness, both real and perceived. I Know How This Ends kicks things off with the upmost honesty, that voice in your head that, based on past experience, tells you that this won’t last, that at any moment you will have that talk which proves your fears were right after all. But things do work out and over a gorgeous suite of songs we follow the protagonist’s plunge into the grips of love. But this is real life not the big screen version and so doubt and lust and resentment and every other unwanted urge and emotion are also dealt with along the way.

Sonically, as you would expect, the album covers a lot of ground, the music relaying the emotions as succinctly as the lyrics that accompany them, songs such as I Can’t Fall Asleep and Uprising echoing those sleepless early hours when the brain won’t stop running through all the possible outcomes of every imagined twist and turn that the relationship might take. At the other extreme, Bed’s staccato electronica and confused structures reflect those lust/hate moments that seem to pitch both extremes of your emotions together and Loyal plays with glitchy jazz grooves in a sort of future-past sound clash.

As always Agency deliver something that seems impossible to pull off until you witness them do it.  Writing music as the soundtrack to a relationship is nothing new but doing so in a way where both the lyrics and the music could exist separately from each other and still convey as much emotion is a rare skill. And even though this is the most personal of subjects, it is also the most universal. This may reflect the artists’ own thoughts and feelings, might be based on very intimate and singular experiences but what they expose here is something most of us have gone through. It’s also a discussion about love, lust, longing, relationships and reality, but one that doesn’t forget to talk about the difficult parts too. The highs are easy, the lows make for great subject matter, but it is that confused middle ground that Questions explores so eloquently and honestly.

 

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