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It seems that The Notwist have a habit of keeping people waiting; a six year hiatus between the excellent Neon Golden and 2008’s The Devil, You + Me, and now six years between their debut collaborative effort with Themselves and 13&God's eagerly anticipated follow up, Own Your Ghost, a concept album on the subject of death. Has it been worth the wait? Well… yes… and no.
There’s no denying they’re an interesting bunch; Themselves consist of Adam 'Doseone' Drucker and Jeffrey 'Jel' Logan, both co-founders of the innovative anticon. label, whose samplers in the late Nineties and early Noughties contained some of the most edifying hip-hop going. Their bedfellows, the aforementioned The Notwist, offer little obvious musical connection, either via their earlier metal releases or the more recent electronica focussed glitch-pop that’s found a welcome home on the Morr Music label - that is, until you dig into Anticon’s more recent releases. Another connection seems to be a shared interest in making music that values its cerebral qualities as much as its intrinsic musical ones. Many of the lyrics are taken from Drucker’s poetry, with standout track ‘Death Minor’ allegedly comprised of lyrics formed on the fly whilst recording was taking place, with Drucker and Markus Acher pulling sheets from a stack of prewritten poems.
The record was produced over three sessions, one in Oakland with a direct feed running to Dax’s bedroom (Dax was paralysed from the chest down in 2005 after a tour van crash), and the other two in Wilheim at The Notwist’s studio. This notion of geographic and personal dislocation is reflected in the music, with individual tracks attaining a decidedly more ‘Notwist’ or ‘Themselves’ feel. Opener ‘It’s Own Sun’ (still struggling with whether that’s a typo or not) or ‘Beat On Us’ have the feel of the former, with delicately strummed guitars and Acher’s mellifluent and calmingly accented vocals dominating proceedings, whilst ‘Sure As Debt’ is led by some traditionally dextrous lyricism from Drucker and the confident drums and crisp production more closely associated with the work of Themselves. It’s interesting to note that the influence of The Notwist is more consistently felt throughout the album; their minimal and soothing presence is still keenly felt through the relative intensity of ‘Sure As Debt’ via a delicate but urgent single note guitar part.
There are occasions when the joint venture comes together to great success, a strong example being ‘Armored Scarves’ where a deftly constructed piece of minimalism straight from The Notwist’s pop sensibility factory jousts with Drucker’s skittering, stream of consciousness flows. One of the reasons the track works particularly well is its bridging of the gaps between the two collaborating groups; it’s one of the few times we hear Drucker’s singing voice, morphing in and out of his more traditional delivery.
The problem is that throughout the record there is the nagging sense that this is ground that contributors have covered previously, either as 13 & God or in their separate guises. It grates particularly when one remembers the sense of innovation and progression that embodied both group’s outstanding and career-defining 2002 releases, Neon Golden and The No Music. It doesn’t help that it’s the Acher brothers’ more consistently evident contributions that feel most dated here; there’s a sense that the best 13 & God album we could expect would see them, and in particular Markus Acher’s vocal parts, taking more of a back seat. Delicate and pure cerebral pop has moved on in the last ten years, with a ready assortment of examples on the tip of the tongue of anyone reading this.
That said there’s a lot to like here, in particular the frequent moments where the pairing works, as Drucker’s stream of consciousness and insouciant delivery jousts with the soft supporting backdrop provided by The Notwist. Whether Own Your Ghost cheats the concept it’s chosen or fades into obscurity, it’s impossible not to admire the dedication and commitment to an aesthetic that both parties clearly believe in.