[12 June 2011]
Doseone thrives on dissonance. Not sonic dissonance, specifically, but rather the jarring product that results from the erasure of boundaries, parameters obliterated through a kind of stylistic piling-on. It is a constant thread throughout his numerous musical projects, a guarantee that whether it be the murky atmospherics of cLOUDDEAD, the painstakingly intricate meta-narratives of Subtle, or the bolder textures of Themselves, his intense, abstract presence at the helm of anything he touches promises a slippery, unpredictable listen.
Tempting as it may be to credit his delivery, those astonishingly nimble vocal splays that saw Doseone going head to head with Eminem in a freestyle battle once upon a time, as his most impressive trait, really it is in the music that he crafts alongside his brilliant Anticon peers (and the occasional likeminded collaborators) where he is creating something new in the amorphous space where the once fiercely individualistic worlds of hip hop, electronica, and indie-rock intersect. It is a sound that is at once right at home in our culture of the perpetual mash-up, where disparate sounds now collide with such regularity that the very notion of “genre” is becoming increasingly antiquated, yet still something very much alien from the rest of this big, messy thing that we call popular music in the 21st century. A decade-plus after first appearing on the scene, Doseone and his crew are still creating music that stubbornly resists categorization.
Back in 2005, 13 & God proposed what was at once both one of Doseone’s most ingenious and yet wholly appropriate mishmashes. Merging the Dose/Jel duo Themselves with German electro-poppers the Notwist, 13 & God grounded some of Dose’s most restrained, yet knotty, compositions with the Notwist’s own mixture of glitchy cool and synth-pop warmth. It was a fascinating and highly pleasing listen, unsettling and oddly comforting in equal measure, though between Dose’s non-stop juggling act of projects and the Notwist’s decidedly unprolific rate of producing new music, it was a meeting that came stamped with a near-guarantee of being a one-off. A new 13 & God record in 2011, six years after the first, was not something many could have reasonably expected.
And yet, here is Own Your Ghost, an album that, on the surface at least, gives us what its predecessor tantalizingly promised in the original merger of these two unique outfits. Over the course of its ten songs, Own Your Ghost essentially ping-pongs between tracks dominated by each contributor’s own distinct personalities. Occasionally, quite often even, the two lock together to create a true hybrid, with songs like “Armored Scarves” and “Janu Are” featuring vocal tradeoffs between Dose’ singular, blink-and-you’ll-miss-what-he-said raps and Notwist front man Markus Acher’s smoothly evasive soft pillow of a voice. Yet, it is still always apparent early on in each song which presence is the dominant one, so that even with Acher anchoring the chorus of “Death Minor”, the emphasis nevertheless remains squarely on Dose’s odd, poetic ramblings, just as the rapper’s mutterings throughout the background of the almost conventionally poppy “Oldage” never detract from what is quite obviously a transplanted Notwist song.
Own Your Ghost will probably come off as an indulgence to fans of either or both outfits, and will undoubtedly be processed as one to fans of the first 13 & God record. What the group seems to have forgotten a bit this time around, though, is that while much of 13 & God’s novelty appeal resided in hearing these two acts performing together, what made it resonate was the ability of the band to create something different in the spaces between them. That album had its own distinct Dose (“Afterclap”) and Acher (“Men of Station”) moments as well, for sure, but the cumulative effect was one of these artists mingling to create something new, whereas the parts of Own Your Ghost come off as far less inextricable from the whole. Thematically, the album creates a solid consistency—note how the nearly subliminal lyric of “you can’t take the ‘eat’ out of death” in the serene, pretty opener “It’s Own Sun” becomes the focal point of the subsequent “Death Major” (or the yin-yang pairing of that song with the later “Death Minor”, for that matter)—but as music, Own Your Ghost feels much more cut-and-paste in its construction than the earlier collaboration.
Not that any of this should prevent listeners from enjoying this album’s considerable pleasures. The very act of listening to Dose’s rapping still feels as much like a tense tightrope walk as ever and, for many listeners, the challenge of seeing how long one can follow the thread of his convoluted lyrical tangents before delirium sets in remains one of the great joys of listening to his work. Sonically, too, the album is a bag of odd but rewarding tricks: the grimy crawl (not to mention what may be history’s most unexpected Billy Joel reference) of “Death Major”, the didgeridoo squawk of “Janu Are”, the machine-gun percussion interlude in “Oldage”, the sputtering, steel drum pulse of “Et Tu”, the aggressive lurch of “Sure as Debt”, the dulcet pitter-patter of “Unyoung”. Yet, for a group of artists who regularly color so far outside the lines to such dazzling effect, the whole of Own Your Ghost registers as just a bit too rote and predictable, a journey back to grounds already thoroughly explored and reaping much richer rewards the last time around. For some of us, though, the very fact of its unexpected existence might just be good enough.