The Mixed Blessings of DJ Shadow's Creative Restlessness
DJ Shadow's first few years' worth of music were so godlike, it's not surprising that his work has slowly declined from those towering achievements. Shadow (aka Josh Davis) launched his production career with some of the most advanced sample-collaging ever committed to tape with the early singles and EPs collected on Preemptive Strike and 1996's consensus classic Endtroducing...... The deep concentration, diligent digging (pre–"everything ever recorded's on the internet" era), and sophisticated arranging skills involved to manifest these tracks continue to astonish listeners and inspire producers. As I've written before about the 1995 EP What Does Your Soul Look Like, Shadow "could've retired after releasing this multifarious suite and still entered the pantheon of immortals."
Unfortunately, Shadow's post-Endtroducing output has fluctuated erratically in quality, with both moves away from his hiphop/triphop roots into songwriterly, sometimes bombastic rock and toward au courant (at the time) hiphop and electronic subgenres like hyphy and dubstep. The Private Press (2002) was a solid sophomore full-length, but after a six-year gap during which he focused on UNKLE's 1998 debut LP, Psyence Fiction, and scoring the soundtrack to 2000's Dark Days, Shadow was expected to deliver more next-level greatness, which did not happen. The Outsider (2006) flailed in many directions, dabbling with über-amped hyphy, electric blues, punk, bland stadium pop, and even psychedelic folk on "What Have I Done" with Charalambides' Christina Carter. Let's call it an interesting failure.
One thing's certain, though: You can't accuse Shadow of hastily pushing out product. Each opus he issues represents years of carefully constructed work into which he's poured his soul. But with last year's The Less You Know, the Better, many listeners and critics thought that Shadow may have lost the plot for good. A mishmash of middling hard rock, sentimental balladry, pompous spoken word, and workmanlike hiphop, The Less You Know seemed hell-bent on avoiding Shadow's strengths. Ironically, the best track—an eerie, wonky-rhythmed instrumental—is titled "Tedium."
Nevertheless, Davis is a deft live entertainer whose Shadowsphere show in 2010 almost rivaled Amon Tobin's ISAM for spectacular synchronization of audio and visual elements. That being said, if Shadow decided to channel all of his energy into spinning 7-inch 45s in front of a white screen, he'd still be a major concert draw, as he's among the most dazzling selectors ever to cue up a track.