Since the kaleidoscopic ‘Endtroducing’, on which DJ Shadow used a singular arsenal of samples to create a bona fide classic, the producer has often struggled to rein himself in. After a number of entertaining but scattergun records that lurch dramatically between extremes, his latest, ‘Our Pathetic Age’, is at the very least bound by some kind of concept.
Track names such as ‘Intersectionality’, ‘Drone Warfare’ and ‘C.O.N.F.O.R.M.’, and the pop art cover on which a woman looks aghast at a smart phone showing the album’s title, seem to indicate that Shadow is wrangling with our contemporary malaise.
The problem is that that’s a pretty loose idea, and what Shadow actually has to say about our so-called ‘Pathetic Age’, if anything at all, is never clear. It’s a double album consisting of one instrumental side and one side featuring guest MCs and vocalists; the first half conjures plenty of dystopian whirrs and attacks of synth, but only occasionally do they create enough atmosphere to properly invoke anything concrete.
There are plenty of moments where Shadow’s brilliance as a producer still shines – ‘Juggernaut’ lurches and spins from hard and ruthless beats into a whirlwind of sound, while ‘Rosie’ finds a welcome burst of joy that morphs into a syrupy ‘Endtroducing…’-style beat. Yet for every moment of flair there are two more where the record meanders and plods, like the soundtrack to a middling sci-fi flick.
The record’s second half, however, on which Shadow invites a genuinely staggering (though sadly entirely male) cast of collaborators – including Nas, Pharoahe Monch, De La Soul, Run The Jewels, a third of the Wu-Tang Clan, Interpol’s Paul Banks and Future Islands’ Sam Hering – is something else entirely. Where the instrumental section never quite got going, often overburdened by a half-baked concept, the second side is all energy. By letting each MC do with the record’s themes as they wish, Shadow is freed to really flex his production muscles, tweaking every beat with expert precision to perfectly match its vocalist.
De La Soul’s ‘Rocket Fuel’ has an inflection of Daisy Age joy, while Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck’s pounding ‘Rain On Snow’ creates the kind of simmering atmosphere that the Wu-Tang have always thrived in. The shimmering ‘Kings & Queens’ brings out Run The Jewels’ soulful side in all its elegance, while Future Islands’ Sam Hering has never sounded as moving as he does on the album’s title track and closer.
Such is the strength of its conclusion, it’s a shame that the first half of ‘Our Pathetic Age’ happened at all.