Five years on from The Outsider, a record which was divisive as it was eclectic, DJ Shadow follows it up with a curious beast of a release.
After 15 years of making explorative instrumental electronic and hip-hop music, Josh Davis now seems unsure of himself. The Less You Know The Better makes for a jumbled listen which offers tired rock guitar samples (‘Border Crossing’), funky drum and bass workouts (‘Run For Your Life) and staid clichéd rap songs (‘Stay The Course’ with Talib Kweli and Posdnuos on autopilot). In the midst of all that are the traditional song styles associated with Shadow, melancholic sampled emotive piano tracks, beat-heavy turntable-led workouts and short interludes.
If we’re to take anything at all from the song titles and spoken word interludes (‘Tedium’, ‘Going Nowhere’, ‘Sad And Lonely’, ‘Give Me Back The Nights’, the album title), the suggestion seems to be that Davis has been in a dire mood of late and he has abandoned or disregarded some of the fundamental features of his craft that got him noticed.
Where previously Shadow was adept at making songs which resonated emotionally and sonically while weaving together in the style of an aural auteur, The Less You Know The Better shows very little of that skill on display and instead employs the opposite of nuanced and subtle production. In addition, the lack of sequencing and narrative is pretty baffling for someone who has proved themselves in that regard in the past.
Light on cohesion, the album ends up sounding like a pastiche of what a DJ Shadow record should sound like rather than an actual DJ Shadow record. It feels like a slightly more thought-out odds and ends collection where even the drab UNKLE rock of ‘Warning Call’ featuring Tom Vek should have been cast aside.
Of what positives remain, ‘Tedium’ creates an eerie mode of tension and tautness, ‘Enemy Lines’ does its best to recreate the spaced-out psychedelics of Entroducing and it totally works as does ‘Redeemed. ‘Scale It Back’ with Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon on vocals is a pleasant standalone piece and the most emotionally effecting here. ‘Def Surrounds Us’, the album’s penultimate track points to the only new addition to the Shadow sound – a wonky electronic near-eight minute tune which sounds like Zomby mashed with Mantronix hip-hop drums. It’s not exactly visionary but it’s still rewarding.
It’s a shame also that ‘I’m Excited’, the upbeat Summer-released single with Afrikan Boy, didn’t make it onto the final tracklisting because of copyright issues. Its inclusion would have livened up the album and added some freshness to proceedings. As it is, the finished record favours repetition over innovation and to quote the title of Shadow’s 2003 DJ mix, The Less You Know The Better is a disappointing case of diminishing returns.