[27 September 2011]
Disliking things is easier than liking them. This digital age phenomenon isn’t exactly a new discovery, but it does feel much more prominent in the age of unfiltered opinion sharing and thought diarrhea that is message boards and user reviews. I’m not immune from this, but when it comes to certain albums I can sometimes sense that it will be one of those releases for which everything is in doubt. The Less You Know, the Better is easily one of those albums. Not only does it carry the tried and true “like it or not, we’re going to be comparing this to your past work” stigma, not only is it fighting against the “formerly world-changing artist now struggling to stand out from the pack” dilemma, but The Less You Know is also fighting against the fact that the music related to it leading up to its release just wasn’t that interesting on its own merits.
Anyone with a finger on the pulse of Top Whatever lists and the mid-‘90s production/turntablism scene is aware of Shadow’s debut, Endtroducing, and the recent compilation of like-minded tracks 4-Track Era. The music from that era of his career undoubtedly stands mountainous as its own thing, something it’s really not fair to expect a musician to repeat forever, whether other, previous wunderkinds were, for a time, able to sustain their amazingness or not. But we did get to see Shadow try in 2002 when he released Private Press, and this was also when he began to struggle against that stigma of comparison. The music was good—maybe (probably) even great—but it wasn’t Endtroducing. How unfair of him to do that to us, right?
Next was The Outsider, about which the less said the better, probably. The album has its merits, but it often felt more novelty than album proper. For all those who ever wondered what it might sound like to hear Shadow produce for rappers, they got their answer that it wasn’t the mind-blowing response they’d been expecting. And so the second stigma came into the play, the question of whether or not Shadow was even that good anymore. Singles preceding this album’s release only further confused matters, especially “I Gotta Rokk”, which is about as unexciting a mashup of hard rock guitars and house beats you could possibly imagine. All of which is why it feels relieving to type these next few words: for the most part, The Less You Know is a return to form for Shadow, his best work since Private Press and, most importantly, fun to listen to.
The album starts out by making one thing extremely clear—DJ Shadow still has some of, if not the, best drum sounds in the business. Throughout the album’s runtime, the kits sound utterly immaculate, constantly laughing in the face of the many watered down, soft snares that conquer hip-hop production of the moment. And it makes this especially clear with the first two tracks of the album, tightly wound production pieces that achieve what they set out for to create a mood both brooding and energetic not unlike, say, “Blood on the Motorway”. But things get strange quickly, as guest rappers Talib Kweli and Posdnous are invited to rap on “Stay the Course” (Posdnous shines, Talib not so much); then, the triptych of “I’ve Been Trying”, “Sad and Lonely”, and “Warning Call”, which are just, um, songs. The former two appear to be samples as no vocal credit is given, but in that case there’s no evidence that Shadow did much more than place a needle on a record and let us listen to what he found. On “Warning Call”, he teams with Tom Vek to throw together a slightly tedious (thanks to Vek’s vocal) post punk number that ironically leads into “Tedium”, easily the album’s strongest number.
On “Tedium”, Shadow seems back in rare form all of sudden, samples swinging in and out of focus as mood-inducing bass ticks the time away, steady-as-hell drums build unending tension, and a beautiful piano winds its way through the milieu, weaving everything into a nice little bow. Unfortunately, it’s not before we hit the album’s middle point, a skit titled “Going Nowhere”, which samples some sort of dialogue explaining we are in the middle, going nowhere, slowly, and that it is a pleasure. Coming off the two songs that precede it (the equally gorgeous “Enemy Lines” is the other), it seems like we’re supposed to be getting the feeling Shadow is leading us towards something—specifically towards the album we were all hoping for and expecting. Instead, it’s the point at which everything clearly dissolves into a collection of muck, a bunch of sounds without any clear home. The “Sad and Lonely” / “I’ve Been Trying” duo earlier in the record hinted at the tone, but the second half of the album thoroughly confirms that DJ Shadow is embracing his DJ/curator half for the first time on an album, preferring to share with us much more often than to create for us.
Of the latter half of the album, it is only “Scale It Back”, a collaboration with Little Dragon, that stands out as anything truly special, an album highlight perfect for fall firepit playlists. “Run for Your Life” does a fun mix of jungle-lite and hard bop jazz, though. But… I don’t know, this is where the listener’s dilemmas all come to the foreground. Because on the one hand, anyone who picks up The Less You Know has a right to be disappointed, especially considering the name of the artist on the spine. I’ve voiced some of the main reasons why in this review. But what’s sometimes impossible to put into words is how, despite all an album’s shortcomings and stacked odds, it’s still a perfectly enjoyable listen. How it might kind of suck has to do with being a DJ Shadow album, but what if it were anybody else’s? Might it be considered in a much more glowing light than it probably will be? I guess what I’m saying is, if you liked where Shadow went on The Private Press, give this one a shot with an open heart because he returns to that sound often, expands on it in ways, and provides a pretty enjoyable collection of tunes on their own merits. I wouldn’t go for the deluxe edition, though. The bonus cuts are kind of a bummer.