Conceptual R&B auteur juggles the accessible and the grotesque.
Based on pre-release single “Counting,” you’d be forgiven for expecting something entirely different from “Anxiety,” the second album by Brooklyn songwriter Arthur Ashin under his Autre Ne Veut project. The song is all icy minimalism: crisp Art of Noise vocal synths and stuttering hi-hats underlining Ashin’s desperate cries of “I’m counting on the idea / that you’ll stay in our life.”
Perhaps the most foretelling aspect of the song, however, is the grotesque swathes of noisy guitar and saxophone that littered the transitions between its verses and choruses. Indeed, the primary relationship in “Anxiety” is between beauty and unrestrained, glorious ugliness. The soothing, earworm of the chorus on “Ego Free Sex Free,” for example, is perpetually contrasted with the tinny, top-40 trance stabs that populate most of the song. Likewise, the ‘N Sync-baiting melody of “Warning” is paired with foreboding operatic vocal samples and a frustrating level of vocal echoing. Ashin has made clear the fact that his goal on “Anxiety” was to examine the tension surrounding contemporary conceptions of the body, and on tracks like the aforementioned “Ego Free Sex Free,” this mission is made delightfully explicit.
For all its difficult sonic adornments and its highbrow concept, though, “Anxiety” is a remarkably fun album to listen to. Look at closing track “World War,” which floats in a new-age aether of synthesizer atmosphere before coalescing into a smooth, drum-machine led mantra of “No way, no way, no way / you’re gonna be my baby.”
In a musical climate overpopulated by experimental-R&B crossover, Autre Ne Veut’s ability to balance intriguing commentary with aurally pleasing structures is both notable and refreshing. (8/10)