DJ Shadow is one of the indisputable masters of electronic music. His 1996 breakout Endtroducing….. is still a landmark in creative sampling, a dizzyingly dense collage of esoteric musical references, comedy skits, interviews, and Twin Peaks clips. It’s still my first port of call when anyone questions the legitimacy of sampling as an artistic method: its majesty is just so unarguable. It slaps down all of those ‘sampling is stealing, not music’ quips as juvenile nonsense.
Since then, though, the Californian dj has never mounted such a convincing argument for sampling as art. The Private Press had its fans, and it’s certainly clever, though it doesn’t approach Endtroducing….. in scale or quality of execution. Then everything else he’s released since has been largely forgettable, failing to connect in quite the same way.
Our Pathetic Age at least has his best album title since Endtroducing….. going for it. And it has a neat, quirky concept: it’s a double album, with two very distinct halves. The first half is DJ Shadow as classic 90s dj: hip-hop instrumentals with spoken-word samples occasionally floating in from the ether. Yet the second half is quite different, featuring collaborations with rappers of varying degrees of fame.
Together, these halves comprise an hour and a half of music. And while you can’t have too much music on an album when it’s good, perhaps the most revealing thing I can tell you if you haven’t listened to this album already, is that it feels like too much music. It’s bloated and bloviating in the worst double album kinda way. It doesn’t justify the excess, feels interminably long, and rewards only in intermittent patches. For a master cutter and paster of music, you end up wishing DJ Shadow had done a hell of a lot more cutting here.
Still, his pasting of music can be as dramatic and gorgeous as we’ve come to expect. “Rosie” really stands out on the first half, playing around with the vocals on a weird soul sample that comes in early on, before moving into a seemingly unrelated coda with melodic synth experiments. It’s dramatic and unusual and totally holds your attention. Entirely orchestral track “Firestorm” is also well worth checking out, and an interesting departure for him.
But the first half musically doodles too much. The pounding, exhilarating drums that unified Endtroducing…..’s sound are often present here, but sometimes the drums skitter hesitatingly or falter through a track, as on “My Lonely Room”, which allows the dreamier moments to lose your attention. An overemphasis on bass drones and synth squiggles, rather than interesting samples, instantly lowers the music’s fascination. Really, this sounds too often like New Age music, rather than the raw sample-heavy electronica that made DJ Shadow so unique and beloved. You listen longing for more eccentric oddities like “Rosie”. And “We Are Always Alone”, which closes the album’s first half, sounds exactly like its title, surly and sulky and droning uninterestingly away from progress in favor of drudgery. Its piano sounds completely uninterested in music and the world.
The second half of the album shifts gears instantly with the arrival of the guest rappers. Nas comes in on “Drone Warfare” with more propulsion than any of the drums on the album’s first half, both bringing the party and upping the drama with his speedy flow and references to climate change and the brothers who never made it out of the game.
From there on, DJ Shadow ups his game to match the intensity of the rappers. The drums instantly leap to the foreground of his music, in order to match the guest’s rhythmic flow, and the vocal samples get more melodic to provide emotional content to match the often political wordplay at hand.
There are some real highs on this second half. De La Soul leading “Rocket Fuel” into party track territory with calls of “ready, set” and “jump to the rhythm”, before setting up a DJ Shadow solo scratching the decks, feels like blatant old-school fun (and an obvious choice of single). Pusha T continues his hot streak on the lively “Been Use Ta”. And Wu-Tang members predictably light up the house on “Rain on Snow”.
Other guests drag down the pace though, such as Stro on “JoJo’s Words”, who simply doesn’t have the stuff to come between Ghostface Killah and Run the Jewels on an album. His flow is clunky and awkward, and you’ll want to skip it less than halfway through. Meanwhile, Sam T. Herring’s soulless singing makes the title track a real drag, and DJ Shadow seriously taxes our patience by including the lame Dave East collaboration “Taxin’” twice (the second time a bonus track longer version).
The second half of the album is definitely stronger, and thankfully longer than the first. But it’s still hampered by the feeling that something has been lost in DJ Shadow, the intricacy and care that made his early works so magnificent, and perhaps the innocent insouciance that made such works possible. Can he ever recover that insouciance? Perhaps. But not if he’s going to rely so heavily on guest artists in the future.