words by JEAN-LUC MARSH
“Play By Play”
In a recent interview, Arthur Ashin, the man behind the avant-pop, R&B bending Autre Ne Veut remarked, “I like the idea of being able to fuck with expectations, and for the music to be a Rorschach test, in a way.” This notion of the ability of music to mold to our interpretations and flourish within the boundaries of our mind, is a prominent feature of Ashin’s second full-length effort as Autre Ne Veut, the sterling and disorienting Anxiety.
Opening track, “Play by Play,” begins with a series of electronic flourishes, the equivalent of pulling back a curtain of beads, and entering into the room that lies beyond. This room seems small at first, a closet with only Ashin’s voice and a rhythmic ringing in the distance. “I don’t wanna be there tonight / you make me low / you make me crawl / and make me harder,” croons Ashin in the sonic calm before the storm. The lyric seems to point to an indictment of a former lover, one that he realizes he is better off without. However, as with nearly all of Anxiety, nothing is what it seems. Over the course of this five minute opus, the track’s simplistic origins expand into a cacophony of disparate sounds encompassing synthesizers, church bells, and a female voice that intertwines with Ashin’s and implores him to never leave her. Somehow, all the sounds coagulate into an addictive melody, and she gets the last word, leaving the prospect of reconciliation lingering.
More immediate than the previous song, “Counting” is saturated with sonic odds-and-ends ranging from tribal shouts and creaking doors, to rapid-fire synths. The only thread holding this dissonant patchwork of sounds together is Ashin’s airy, vulnerable falsetto. “I’m counting on the idea that you’ll stay,” he wails, in what seems like an attempt to prevent a lover from leaving. However, in one of the many twists within Anxiety, Ashin revealed that the song is much deeper, instead recounting his fear of losing his grandmother.
Fourth track, “Ego Free, Sex Free,” contains a chorus in which Ashin sings “Ego free, sex free / I can’t feel my body moving / Ego free, sex free / I can’t see your body, baby” over climaxing synthesizers and electric guitars, imbuing the track with a rhythmic magnetism that builds to create the most exhilarating moment on Anxiety. The meaning of the lyrics is a riddle, but one fundamental fact is clear, it feels good.
However, any musical momentum built up on “Ego Free, Sex Free,” evaporates on “A Lie,” the most restrained track on Anxiety utilizing little more than a guitar and falsetto. Despite being a welcome transition from the maximalist instrumentation of the first four tracks, it feels anticlimactic, wasting the energy built up on the previous track. “Gonna Die” is another slow jam that finds Ashin at his most frank and fatalistic. Over a funerary organ, he throws the strongest lyrical punch on Anxiety, crying “Oh I’m gonna die / and I’m feeling more accurately now than I have for a while.”
Ironically, Anxiety sounds lifeless after “Gonna Die.” The final three tracks blend into a miasma of falsetto and discordant instrumentation that passes by with little fanfare. Hopes are dashed when penultimate track “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is not a Whitney Houston cover (which, in my opinion, Autre Ne Veut would have absolutely killed), but rather more of the same, this time over post-apocalyptic noises that could have made a cameo in something from Clams Casino. The final third of Anxiety is not necessarily bad; it simply lacks the luster to keep the listener’s attention.
Anxiety is an album littered with opuses. Each is a self-contained universe encapsulating whichever emotion it is assigned. No track has a clear meaning, and Anxiety truly does take on the form of a Rorschach test, becoming whatever the listener views it as. Between its heavy instrumentation and heavenly falsetto, it could be an ode to a lover or a resignation to heartbreak. From this versatility originates the power of Anxiety. It grows beyond its deeply emotional roots, to become whatever you want it to be. [B+]
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Stream it at: Pitchfork Advance