Dipping into ‘The Less You Know, The Better’ is a reluctant experience. After the dreck that was 2006’s ‘The Outsider’, even fans of DJ Shadow weren’t exactly clambering for his new record. The beatsmith and king-of-digging, lauded for his influential album ‘Endtroducing’ in 1996, and known to general audiences for his hit single ‘Six Days‘ from 2002, delivers his new record with little fanfare.
So, good news: ‘The Less You Know, The Better’ is not so instantly engaging as ‘Endtroducing’, nor as joyfully adventurous as ‘The Private Press’, but thankfully its not as garish as ‘The Outsider’. What ‘The Less You Know, The Better’ does well is give us a range of mostly enjoyable tracks which recall much of Shadow’s existing discography, with tantalizing glimpses of new directions, but a mostly unsatisfying overall listen.
The tracks on show here fit into the handful of different DJ Shadow ‘modes’ which he returns to on all of his releases:
1: Battle beats mode – Shadow marries pounding heavy hip hop drums with electric guitar stabs and random cuts and samples, the perfect showcase for his vast collection of vinyl and musical knowledge. The style strongly recalls his work with UNKLE, ‘Walkie Talkie’, or ‘March of Death’ (his collaboration with Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha). While it is the dominant approach on this record, and a few tracks stand out (both parts to ‘Circular Logic’), after a few listens they’re utterly exhausting and too repetitive to return to.
2: Melancholy mode – The style he’s most commonly associated with from ‘Endtroducing’, but not one he’s revisited much in the past ten years to so, so Shadow fans will be glad to know there are quite a few tracks here which fit the bill. A couple are too simple to be of much interest, and ‘Give Me Back The Nights’ exists solely to showcase an effective beat-poem, but ‘Redeemed‘ manages to strongly impress. It is one of the standouts on the album, a shimmering and melodic track with wonderful sampled female vocals and a signature DJ Shadow rhythm.
3: 90s mode – Classic jazzy beats recalling that golden age of hip hop, with cool bouncy vocals on top from recognised rappers, though there’s really only one track here that fits the bill. ‘Stay The Course‘ is a catchy little bass-walking tune with guest vocals by Posdnuos (of De La Soul) and Talib Kweli, both of who deliver the goods. As a throwback track it’s a success, and will strongly appeal to fans of jazz-hop while offers not much new in the genre.
4: I-don’t-just-make-hip hop mode – Although a side of DJ Shadow which was suggested strongly in the good half of ‘The Outsider’, it’s an aspect which I want to see more of.
While ‘Warning Call’ sounds nearly identical to anything from late 80s The Cure and is pretty skip-able, ‘Scale It Back’ is such a genuine pleasure that I had to check that I hadn’t accidentally skipped to another record. More than any track here it feels the most like a complete song and not just a repeating loop.
In opposition to the entire record, ‘Scale It Back‘ is a delicately arranged and cleverly composed pop tune, with Swedish alt group Little Dragon contributing instrumentation and vocals, flighty lyrics floating over the top of a repeating piano riff and effectively sparse drumming. The effort easily recalls Brit-pop act Suede. Due to how different it sounds to Shadow’s usual work, it’ll probably be the most overlooked track on the record, while on any other record it would be its biggest single. Whether you love it or hate it (no doubt it will be a divisive track), it demonstrates that DJ Shadow still has surprises up his sleeve which could easily pull him out of the stifling genre expectations of hip hop, and into a broader musical field and larger popularity.
The Deluxe edition includes three additional tracks. ‘Come on Riding’ is a successful soft-metal ballad which positively recalls Don Felder and his ilk, while ‘Def Surrounds Us’ and ‘Let’s Get it’ are harder edged. The additional tracks are worth it, but you’re not missing too much by grabbing the non-deluxe version.
To be blunt though, the finished record is downright schizophrenic, and at times aimless. I see a subtle story played out in the tracks and their titles: ‘Stay The Course’, ‘I’ve Been Trying’, ‘Sad and Lonely’, ‘Tedium’, ‘Going Nowhere’, and ‘Redeemed’. Even the high-energy tracks feel somewhat exhausted before they even get into it, while many tracks never even take off. Its difficult to pinpoint what works because there’s so much here that shows promise, but fails to satisfy.
While it is still an enjoyable record, DJ Shadow has lost some of the impulsive boundless-ness of previous records. Other beat-makers have since picked up and expanded on the promise of his early releases, while its become easier to see that Shadow has lagged behind his contemporaries in his production creativity, though his live shows continue to impress. Ultimately, ‘The Less You Know, The Better’ fails to leave a lasting impact, but leaves hope for new directions.