DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, is a man at the top of his game, yet to some of his fans that title would be meaningless because it can be said that DJ Shadow is in a game all his own, being a producer, DJ, and songwriter whose music is nearly impossible to pin down. He continues a rhythmic journey only a few before him have even dared. He smoothly slides over genre boundaries, bouncing from the club-driven bass and hip-hop hits to the moody atmospheric funk of the past. Now that wide range is celebrated in the upcoming album, Reconstructed: The Best of DJ Shadow.
The album kicks off with the clarion call, “The clock on the wall reads a quarter past midnight”, one of his better-known sound bites. The haunting melody that follows is like strolling though a beautiful fog of samples and bass. Delicate and precise piano notes drop like rain in front of your feet. This opening track, “Midnight in a Perfect World”, embodies a side of DJ Shadow that so many people rally towards. He’s created a technique of building a musical atmosphere that truly transports the listener, softly smoothing out reality and replacing it with his own worldview.
The haunting and melodramatic style continues in many of the tracks, like “Lonely Soul” (created under the group Unkle and featuring Richard Ashcroft from The Verve), “Listen” (featuring Terry Reid, previously unreleased), and “Redeemed”. They all weave an eerie sense of loneliness, but undercut with an acceptance of the future, kind of a “chin up” sort of outlook. DJ Shadow hides motivation in his music, a sense that there is power in your hands and an ability to change your destiny.
While that might sound a bit heavy and over-indulgent for a DJ track, maybe I’m looking too much into it, let’s look at one of his most famous tracks, “Six Days”. He created this anti-war track in response to where he saw the U.S. government moving and the attitudes in the country somehow falling in lockstep. The song resonated wildly with the mainstream public in a way his previous works hadn’t yet, like a banner waving through the radio waves telling people how dangerous things were really getting. In an interview once, DJ Shadow remarked that he thought he would never write a song more important than this. While he’s created great music since then, I believe he was spot on.
Reconstructed also puts on display some of those incredibly different genre tracks that make him so hard to pin down. “I’ve Been Trying” is more mellow, bringing in rarely used instruments, like woodwinds, to help provide the heartbeat of the song. “Scale It Back” (featuring Little Dragon) and “Won’t You Be “ (previously unreleased) slides into the red-light district, a touch of TLC mixed with Prince. You immediately recognize these tracks as ones you put on that special mixtape for the right mood, on the right night, with the right person.
Closing out the compilation is “Dark Days (Main Theme)”, a deep underground soundscape he designed for a documentary about homeless people who live underground in abandoned subway tunnels. The whole song is like a shadow of itself, hiding the complexity in the hypnotic repetition of the drums. There is a sense of sadness, of something left behind and it closes the album like you are walking away from something you might never get back (but lucky for us, we can set the entire album on repeat).
This album is a great window into the DJ Shadow catalog, a perfect beginner’s guide to this incredibly unique artist or a carefully collated reminder for the longtime fan. Its release is also accompanied by a collection called Reconstruction: The Definitive DJ Shadow (available only through DJ Shadow’s official website). There are only 500 of these box sets, which include eight discs, one 12” record, and a ton of other memorabilia. This is the holiday present every DJ Shadow fan will be hoping to find this year, if they can wait that long to tear off the wrapping.