It’s hard to review Zomby the artist because Zomby the man is such a frank, honest, elusive character. He’ll disappear for what seems like forever and then suddenly some lucky journalist will catch him in an email or AIM conversation and his soul will be laid bare. Everything about Zomby the man will come straight out into you — through your eyes to your brain — and you’ll wonder how putting a number on such a person is even valuable. Because just to read the things he can’t bare to speak aloud in interviews with folks like The Fader and Self-Titled is baffling enough. How are you supposed to translate that sort of humanity into a critique on whether his music is good?
I think this question of his existence, his love for southern gangster rap (particularly Memphis) and family, is the most intriguing part about the man who crafts tributes to rave culture and the dubstep scene he’d like no part of, but through close friendships with Burial and Kode9 is deeply indebted to. Just listen to the Whoo Kid sirens on “Things Fall Apart” featuring Panda Bear or the Juicy J-like gunclaps that invigorate much of this inward-looking LP with energy at its most dire moments. Zomby is a man obviously making music that appeals to the ideals he held as a child even as most of it goes unheard, legendarily obscured by either his unwillingness to release them or the English underground’s inability to spring these releases free.
Dedication is an album that through his words and its actions seemingly begs not to be judged as such. Equal parts Pantha du Prince, insert house musician here and Burial on an equalized concoction of uppers and downers, the album rolls through the dips and dives of modern UK music like a roller coaster hellbent on confusing its listeners why they ever came. It’s the Aerosmith ride at Disney World without the pomp and dynastic self-worth. Dedication isn’t purposely named for the hole Zomby feels over his suddenly lost father, but it certainly would feel that way.
After all, you’ve got the album title and tracks like “Riding With Death”, “Adagio for Lucifer”, “A Devil Lay Here”, “Basquait” and “Witch Hunt”. It’s an album in which its darkness lays in its beauty — its ability to rope you in through 50-second sound segments and a collection of jungle- and dub-based backing tracks that all eventually succumb themselves to sorrowful pianos whether in person or by proxy. Dedication is a recording of a man at peace with his misery but quite obviously unsure of what to do with it; he skitters from one contemplative piece to another with little regard for whether a thought was finished. Indeed, the single “Natalia’s Song” is a fully-fledged endeavor, exploring what it might sound like if Burial allowed his faceless female vocal samples to remain uninhibited by electronic filters other than the cut and paste nature of today’s culture. If I may play nerd a moment, the song also seems to borrow heavily from the impending dread of Mike Skinner’s “Blinded by the Lights” both in chords and agenda.
At times, even as his oft-named influences or favorite artists stray from the framework this LP provides, Zomby seems to be translating the loneliness and hedonism of the American south’s gangster rap. His regard for rules is bare minimum, allowing tracks to end as they begin and crafting a second half of his album that can nary compare to the stuff that led to Panda Bear’s lone appearance, let alone attempt to trump it. Instead, Dedication is oftentimes the sound of a man simply making the sounds that suit him, and in a merely visceral context, suit those who choose to give him a listen. One can’t deny that the second half of the album, littered with supposed snippets as it is, forgoes the momentum of the beginning half in favor of meditative, languished ideals. There is no “Witch Hunt” or “Natalia’s Song” to be found there, only more bright darkness.
But it is what makes Zomby weak, at the moment, as an album-crafter that also makes him feel essential if you give his interviews the time to read them. It becomes clear he’s not a man who cuts a record because he was expected to, but because he had a feeling he needed to convey. He doesn’t brag about his work, and unlike William Bevan he hasn’t allowed his name to escape the private halls of his regular life. And such, as an outsider at large to the micro movements of the dubstep scene and UK electronica in general, I can’t claim to understand whether Dedication is a disappointment to some or an achievement to all. I can only understand what I’ve understood, and that is that Zomby is a fantastically personal person whose music has never come across as less than touching. Dedication defines him as an artist to watch, and perhaps more importantly as an artist to be enjoyed.