Track By Track: DJ Shadow – Our Pathetic Age

DJ Shadow, Our Pathetic Age

The joy of our track-by-track reviews is that we have a little more column space than usual to take a really deep dive into a new record and use loquacious, flowery language to describe how it made us, and our ears, feel. Enter DJ Shadow, with a 26-track album with song titles that would take up half of the word count. It left us with a conundrum. Do we stick to the format of the section and risk being undescriptive, or do we flout the rules of the track-by-track review and risk the entire magazine as a concept disappearing into an inverse reality dimension of its own logical making?

We’ll let you discover the proof of said sonic pudding in the eye-eating.

DJ Shadow. He’s a guy. Released some stuff, produced some stuff. I dunno, google it. I’m no yer maw.

Our Pathetic Age is a proper yin yang double album with disc one containing instrumental tracks full of moments of delightful surprise, and disc two a more collaborative and hip-hop affair including input from luminaries such as Nas, De La Soul and a few of the more recognisable members of Wu-Tang Clan.

It all starts with ‘Nature Always Wins’ – a burst of analogue synths and tape saturation which threatens to turn into Hendrix’s version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but instead gives way to the skipping hard snares, buzzy LFO and fantasy piano of ‘Slingblade’, which shifts mood from doom-laden to ambitious back to doom-laden in just over 3 minutes. An early highlight, it’s a perfect soundtrack to racing through the Clyde Tunnel at night.

Then follows – deep breath – ‘Intersectionality’, ‘Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law’,‘Juggernaut’, ‘Firestorm’, ‘Weightless’, ‘Rosie’, ‘If I Died Today’ and ‘My Lonely Room’.

I suspect a large chunk of people buying this record will revisit the second disc a lot more often for its unashamed bangers than the first disc and its swirling mood pieces. Certainly, our detailed review of disc one should hopefully sway you as it actually showcases DJ Shadow at his most distilled.

Shadow himself said that “despite the title, it’s a hopeful, vibrant album” and I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing. It has hopeful sections, but it does feel very grounded in the current mass malaise that has characterised the second half of this accursed decade.

The collab section of the album kicks off with ‘Drone Warfare’ where Nas and Pharaoh Monch spit about global warming and automation over a lively drum track and pleasingly dropped samples. ‘Rain On Snow’ is a rump shaker, where treacly vocal samples are interrupted by Ghostface Killah and Raekwon rhythmically pondering the real nuclear capabilities of North Korea.

‘Rocket Fuel’ was one of the lead singles; here the mix is very much tailored towards the delivery of collaborators De La Soul. There’s a hint of period authenticity to the eighties-inspired samples, and this is one of the tracks you’re more likely to hear whilst out and about – potentially in a shopping centre or somewhere else horrendous that doesn’t deserve as funky a soundtrack.

‘C.O.N.F.O.R.M’ and ‘Small Colleges (Stay With Me)’ both occupy well-trodden roads, and the low drive of the former is countered by the more reflective latter. ‘JoJo’s Word’ introduces me, if not everyone, to Stro, a Brooklyn rapper signed by Nas’ label whose delivery is a revelation, matching metronomic timing to a lazy lilt in the vein of ODB. ‘Kings & Queens’ sees Run the Jewels’ El-P, rhyming about his gran over a dubby bass break, embellished by huge strings and a gospel choir, before Dave East’s signature nasal delivery dominates ‘Taxin’ – a slice of inner-city American imagery, followed by the hazy and narratively similar ‘Dark Side Of The Heart’.

‘I Am Not A Robot’ serves as a mood intro to ‘Urgent, Important, Please Read’, a single ‘Drone Warfare’ where Nas and Pharaoh Monch released in October which combines a jumpy spit about global warming and automation over a backing track driven by church organ chords and lyrics which could serve as an intro to any of the Terminator movies. By the time the marimba jumps to the front of the mix for the last two minutes, you’ll already be lost in its looping, haunted groove.

The vinyl version signs off with title track ‘Our Pathetic Age’, which finds Sam Herring crooning over a particularly crisp drum track picked out by compressed, wah guitar lines. The overall mood of the closing track could easily stray into ‘Billy Joel does elevator hip hop’ territory, but it maintains the ghostly yet lively presence of the rest of the double album. Digital versions include an additional three bonus tracks, but the only real gem amongst these is ‘Been Used Ta’, where Pusha T adds an air of effortless cool to a backing track echoing the arpeggio synth theme to Stranger Things.

In conclusion, I’m pleased we could approach this album in the same way as others, and our track-by-track review was in no way compromised by trying to fit all of the song titles within the character lim [This joke works better in the print edition]

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