What Does Your Soul Look Like?

DJ Shadow - What Does Your Soul Look Like EP.JPG

It was by the most serendipitous circumstances that I happened upon this magical musical discovery. It would be more accurate to state that the piece found me when I was ready to receive it. I’d recently revisited DJ Shadow’s complex turntablist opus, Endtroducing and found one particular track title resurfacing in my mind again and again after I’d put the record away. The track appears in two parts on the album – the classic, “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”

Perhaps it was the existential considerations which had been present in my mind of late, but at one fateful moment I felt curious enough to research the title and quickly discovered that the two segments from the LP are edits from a four-part extended work released as an EP fully-exploring the nocturnal and reflective territory hinted at by the selections on Endtroducing. I quickly secured a copy of the EP and cued it up.

It was instantly apparent that this was going to be an exceptional recording. Much in the spirit of Moondog’s microcosmic symphonies, What Does Your Soul Look Like Pts I-IV is effectively DJ Shadow’s own symphonique. There are even sonic similarities to what Moondog dubbed, “snaketime” in the way the focus and rhythm shifts constantly and fluidly throughout the four movements.

Before the session completed, I really felt it was a piece I’d like to have in an original pressing to enjoy spinning again and again. There was only one copy listed for sale in the States, belonging to DJ Tom Thump. Tom has played at shows or opened for Gilles Peterson, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation, Bonobo (5 times), Morrissey, Jamiroquai, Femi Kuti, Tricky, Morcheeba, The Original Meters, Gang of Four, George Clinton, Bonobo, and many others. I trusted that this would be a disc handled with care.

I dialed it up, loud, and extinguished all lamps until the sound engulfed the room. What follows is the play-by-play of my experience.

Pt II:

A brief horn instrumental innocently opens the disc, followed by a haunting voice singing lonely with interspersed bass-drenched speech:

“We are standing here at the edge of time…”

(Cold…)

“Our road was paved to the edge of time…”

(Steel… Sparks…)

“Come with me now to the edge of time…”

(Does anyone remember who I am?)

And then silence. And a narrator, (sampled from the 1983 film, Brainstorm), tells the listener that this is their last chance to turn back with a cautionary warning:

“In a few moments, you will have an experience which will seem completely real…

It will be the result of your subconscious fears, transformed to your conscious awareness…

You have 5 seconds to terminate this tape…

5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

And on the “one” a steady, persistent guitar loop ushers the listener in and a swirl of sustained strings, snippets of soulful vocals, DJ scratching, jazz licks, and funky percussion gradually transport you into the dark, contemplative world Shadow has built on this EP.

The guitar and drums carry on for more than ten minutes while a vast array of samples weave their way in and out of the piece. There are glimpses of Richard Harris, a reflective soliloquy from the 1973 film, Johnny Got His Gun, Willie Bobo and company’s “Shelley’s Blues”, and several others before the instrumentation finally relents, leaving the listener with the eerily emotionless android voice from George Lucas’ THX-1138 speaking:

“Can you feel this? … What is that buzzing? … Are you now, or have you ever been? … Move slowly.”

Shadow brilliantly evokes a disquieting sense of unease while simultaneously creating a cerebral space that is endlessly intriguing and the listener eagerly presses on.

Pt III:

A rise of bubbling and echo-laden spoken word fragments, chimes, flute, and minimal piano create a mesmerizing atmosphere for the opening of the second movement.  The speech is from the 1980 sci-fi film, Altered States.

“…I’m asking you to make a small quantum jump with me, to accept one deviant concept – that our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking state and that reality can be externalized!…

…We’re beyond mass and matter here, beyond even energy. What we’re back to is the first thought!”

And suddenly, a bass drum and hi-hat kick in full force front and center of the soundstage. Flute and piano are sprinkled in jazzlike hits accompanied by scratching and high-frequency tones from an indiscernible instrument. There is a momentary release from the percussion and the jazzy traces hang in the air before its energetic return to close the track. And not a drop of this sounds artificial or electronically-contrived. There is a brilliant fluidity and ever-present organic quality about this entire record, which keeps the sound fresh and timeless despite the nearly twenty-five years that have passed since its composition.

Pt IV:

A smattering of dystopian dialog (lifted from the movie Dead Calm), humming machinery, and ominous indistinguishable noises return the listener to the dark, melancholic environ that so much of this record occupies. And swiftly, a fleeting rest signals the introduction of the classic, “WDYSLL? (Pt IV)” we all know and love from Endtroducing. The track is an intimate, cerebral, and undeniably classy foray into minimal, soulful jazz turntablism. The vocal elements are restrained, subtle, and perplexingly elusive. This selection expertly captures the lonely, somber, and introspective space that DJ Shadow explored over the course of his universally-lauded epic debut LP.

Pt I:

A booming low-register voice utters the word, “…ONE…” followed by a single bell chime and an array of jazzy components for the briefest introductory moment before the percussion manifests and seizes your full attention. Fantastically sparse horns and traces of a choir appear… (or is it my imagination?) And a mournful voice (evidently sampled from Shawn Phillips’ “All Our Love”) sings words which drift into and out of comprehensibility:

“And why should we want to go back where we were, how many years… (could that have been?)”

“And why should we want to live a life that’s past and nevermore… (will ever be?)”

Which is followed by crooning in Italian – the voice of Gianni Nazzaro singing, “C’era Già” which, I believe, translates thusly:

“…and there was already this love that we live long ago, there was already a rose I gave you… the songs I sang, the sadness in joy…”

There is a beautiful sorrow and sophistication from start to finish on this record, and it really works to create a world the listener can disappear into. The final “Pt 1” movement has seven distinct known samples, including “Nucleus” by The Alan Parsons Project, “Voice of the Saxophone” by The Heath Brothers, the aforementioned lyrical excerpt from “All Our Love” by Shawn Phillips, percussion from David Young’s “Joe Splivingates”, the legendary “This is not a dream” pirate broadcast from John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and finally, “…It is happening again…” from the episode “Lonely Souls” of the TV series Twin Peaks. These elements coalesce seamlessly into one cohesive lucid dream of an album.

After a single breath, the female voice from the opening of the disc warmly repeats the now-familiar phrase, “here we are at the edge of time…”

And then, with tranquil grace and incalculable ease, the instrumentation trails off leaving silence, depositing the listener back to this mortal world. Enter the final, seventh sample for the closing movement – a dialog between two characters from Westworld saying,

“Don’t you want to listen?”

“Nah, I heard it the last time.”

And the needle raises and returns, leaving the listener awed and transformed.

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