Autre Ne Veut
(Mexican Summer/Software; 2013)
By Jonathan Wroble | 28 February 2013
While depression and schizophrenia often forerun an artist’s output and image, anxiety disorders—such as the one that afflicts Arthur Ashin, mind and voice of Autre Ne Veut—are much less discernible, especially when the artist in question writes hooky R&B so curious and melodious it shakes off a deeper reading. Consider “Wanna Be Startin Something” as a working model: how many spins does it take to stop dancing, briefly ponder the message and suddenly realize MJ’s harrowing dread of a glad-handing, suffocating music industry? This exact effect and crucial disconnect is finessed across the entirety of Anxiety, the second LP from this Brooklyn producer/songwriter and his best-yet realization of sheeny pop subtly imbued with unsettling themes. It’s an entertaining record to hear, but at times a devastating one to listen to.
First single “Counting,” released months ago and accompanied by a disturbing hospital-set video, exemplifies the tone of the album. It’s an intriguing thing to behold: Ashin works flailing saxophone and what sounds like an ocarina into a creepy, creeping soundscape, and sings about avoiding his inpatient grandmother for fear their next conversation might be the last. “I’m counting on the idea that you stay alive” is a shattering lyric, and the way it’s sung—layered by backing vocalists and intertwined with the singsongy chant that starts the track—makes it some sort of mantra, a moody rumination less on a tortured artist’s life and more on an artist tortured by life itself. It’s palpable, on this song and many others, that music is not solely a creative outlet for Ashin; it’s one-way therapy, his expression of profound feelings removed from the pressures and tedium of human interaction. This album is his rare glimpse of control.
That said, he doesn’t always work this freedom to an advantage. Until late last year Ashin kept his identity anonymous, and there’s a sense on Anxiety that to cultivate robust personality he crams ideas and movements into a space a tenth their size. “Warning” and “Promises” are dense gauntlets of noise, both too vigorously arranged, while “World War” and “A Lie” can be boiled down to a few memorable sections. Bouts of overanalysis and busyness make the album much less digestible than its 39-minute running length might suggest—sometimes compelling and rewarding, other times just perplexing. It’s perhaps too easy to let the bells and whistles disrupt or distract from Anxiety’s heartbreaking subject matter, which is neither a full nor fair experience of these songs.
The record’s highs come when the studio tricks coalesce instead of confound, and they’re each momentous—new achievements in the spare parts R&B that call to mind and challenge the feats of M83 and Twin Shadow, made better by Ashin’s acrobatic falsetto. Record opener “Play by Play” is a stunner, slowly moving into an anthemic chorus where Ashin begs to be kept in the loop (“I just called you up to get the play by play / Don’t ever leave me alone”). “Ego Free Sex Free” should rightly inspire the lot of Prince comparisons—the verses have a similar structure to “Little Red Corvette” and the bridge recycles the baby noises from “Delirious.” On the chorus Ashin doubles his voice a few octaves down and the effect is intoxicating. Elsewhere he further mines the ‘80s for surface details and references: “A Lie” has a bit of “Time After Time” to it, while “Don’t Ever Look Back” borrows synth lines from “(I Just) Died in Your Arms.” And despite being quiet and quick, “Gonna Die” is a shimmering peak, a bit of optimistic resignation with a church organ riff that revels in its own plastic drama. It’s a simple production and message that shows amidst otherwise bombast just how effective Ashin can be when clear-headed and uncomplicated.
But since simplicity is not his state of being, Anxiety is a record of difficult pacing, wrought dynamics, and the dabbling of natural unease. These features make it impressive as well as imperfect; its conflict is how it faithfully renders the twitchy detachedness of the electronic ‘80s, yet wants so badly with its content to be warm. Before facing copyright issues, Ashin used Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” as cover art, a quaint little metaphor for the commercialization of torment and the fragile beauty of pain. Yet Anxiety is not intimate and cohesive like a painting. It’s too sprawling to be singular and its appeal comes down to whether you assess this quality as ambitious or as unfocused. To use a description that likely comes to Ashin’s mind when he contemplates the world, this record—however fascinating—is unapproachable.