Smiling With No Teeth (Ourness)
Once, we might have said that Genesis Owusu was in a hurry. A lot of things to say, not enough time to say them all, so he’s pumping it up and pumping it out in one big blow.
After all, depending on what point of this 15-track debut album you drop in on you might assume he’s a smooth R&B mover or a speedy neo post-punk, a man with wells of personal darkness to draw from or one amused by the false dichotomies we erect, a quick-witted rapper or a slow food thinker, plugged into funk with a southern drawl or squinting into a setting New York sun.
And this is before getting to the fact that he is a Canberra-based, Ghanaian-Australian making music in a country that can’t even get its shit together to acknowledge a history that existed before the 18th century without having conniptions, and yet he sounds like someone who believes, and maybe even trusts.
And for freakin’ father’s sake, he is only 22! Who is this guy? Or should that be, who are these guys?
Early doors, I need to acknowledge two extra elements: this album came out a couple of weeks ago (which is really neither here nor there as time goes, but does recognise plenty of good people have been talking about him for a good while), and I have become obsessed with it (which might explain the fervour, but not the judgement).
All of that feeds into that initial idea of a man in a hurry. But that’s not the lasting impression of Smiling With No Teeth. None of this is rushed, tripping over itself to fit everything in, or overworked. Instead, it feels whole and planned.
The man born Kofi Owusu-Ansah, and principal producer Andrew Klippel (whose own history goes back to ancient times via early ‘90s electro-pop group, Euphoria), achieve a sense of continuity throughout. Once the early shocks of the scope of styles assayed passes, you are never in doubt of a central vision – lyrical and sonic, yes, but overarchingly, philosophical.
Part of that effect is the focus on a small in-studio band - Kirin J Callinan, Julian Sudek, Klippel and Touch Sensitive – which feels organic and flexible. Observe, the fluidity of Touch Sensitive’s bass playing against Callinan’s slightly distanced wrangled guitar in Gold Chains, or how their roles are reversed in the twinkling pop smoothness of A Song About Fishing (whose metaphors might be considered a wry update on the positivity of Arrested Development’s advice re:fish/fishing/future).
Take in the trip hop scratchiness and layers of suspicion that add up to something teetering on (but holding back from) paranoid gloom in Bye Bye, or how the multiple, contrasting guitars of Whip Cracker emerge from thick atmospheres that reek of London after dark energy.
Or just admire the way Klippel’s intersecting keyboards make smoke around the deceptively plain bass in the Atlanta-inspired Waitin’ On Ya (and even more Outkast-like Easy) then prod questioningly behind Sudek’s sharp-elbowed drums in The Other Black Dog and Drown.
The other part is the centrality of two lyrical concepts: personal isolation and societal ostracism/exclusion. The black dogs here are double-edged. When Owusu chants “Black/Dogs on the move/Black/Feel the fur on the bruise” in the electro-agitation of the album’s brief opener, On The Move, and follows it with “I can feel it in my skin/I can feel my soul move/I can feel all of your sin/I can feel your fangs too”, the tension is positively febrile.
Being black in Australia is examined from multiple angles, some of them gut-punching and frank, not least how the constancy of external examination feeds into unhealthy self-examination. Others are played with a sense of wit that places the absurdity of racism into its mocking place.
Neither position is offered as one answer, for that would be absurd, anymore than one experience is described as typical. Smiling With No Teeth is far smarter than that. But they all play a role in the momentum-to-something-better aspect of this extraordinary record.
As Owusu says in the smooth-suit R&B (complete with ‘80s sax) of No Looking Back “Everywhere that I go, all the scars on my skin/I tell myself that there’s no looking back.”