When you’ve made one of the greatest albums ever, you’re always going to have a hard time following it.
DJ Shadow’s approach to overcoming that this time around? Make not one, but two albums. It’s a double album tied to a loose concept of how the world is a mess but we’re too busy staring at screens to notice or do anything about it beyond retweeting something about homelessness, or whatever.
The first album is (mostly) instrumental and the second album is a hip-hop album save for an appearance by Samuel Herring.
Like Flying Lotus’s Flamagra earlier in the year it’s long and has a ridiculous list of guest appearances. And like Flamagra there is one half which is definitely more my cup of tea.
Unlike Flamagra the two albums here are deliberately distinct from one another, rather than being mixed through the tracklisting.
The result is a sprawling gloomy beast with opening track ‘Nature Always Wins’ delivering a dramatic sonic warning and setting the dark and brooding atmosphere which continues throughout. While the mood may be consistent, the quality is not. There are sublime highs like ‘Slingblade’ but also incongruous lows like the first half of ‘Rosie’.
‘Firestorm’ is the most interesting from an instrumentation point of view. Unusually for DJ Shadow it sounds like a full set of live instruments, none weirder than the bassoon. After the pleasingly odd first half of the track, the second half sounds like the incidental battle music from a thousand, low quality, superhero or fantasy films and TV series.
However he’s run out of ideas on album 1 by track 9 which fades out after a little over two minutes. He does the same on album 2 with ‘Taxin’, coming in at under 2 minutes. The full version, including the Loyle Carner appearance, is relegated to the bonus tracks. Why a double album needs bonus tracks is beyond me. The longer version of the song in these bonus tracks, this time including Loyle Carner, comes in at 3 minutes 47 seconds – it’s not overly long. The bonus tracks also include ‘Been Use Ta’, featuring another not insignificant rapper in Pusha T, and which also happens to be one of the best tracks on the album. Odd decisions all round.
The album is called Our Pathetic Age and the cover features a Roy Lichtenstein style illustration of a woman looking at a smart phone screen. So it would follow that DJ Shadow would want to make some points about this age of ours, and its patheticness. Yet for the whole of album one, while at points it might set a musical mood, it says, verbally, nothing. I blissfully carry on listening to part 2, on my smartphone.
‘Rocket Fuel’ brings the pop sensibility that De La Soul have always had back to the fore. It’s the best thing they’ve done in years. Run the Jewels’ appearance on ‘Kings & Queens’ achieves similar success.
It’s not until the last two tracks that anything materialises that comes close to what the album title and cover suggest might be in store for us.
“What are we going to do about it?” asks the penultimate track.
DJ Shadow offers no solutions to the problems. I feel no more motivation to attempt to come up with them myself after listening. I considered switching to refillable shower gel instead of using more single use plastic bottles this morning, but that was unrelated. I retweet something about homelessness, or whatever, and blissfully carry on listening to a different album, on my smartphone.
Words by James Spearing