Release Date: February 26, 2013
Label: Mexican Summer
Sorting through the feelings behind Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety is a daunting task. The Brooklyn-based producer only recently revealed his actual name (Arthur Ashin) to his fans — he’s been studying for a masters degree in psychology, you see, and was fearful of his musical notoriety affecting any future non-musical endeavors. With this knowledge, his second full-length becomes a dissertation on its namesake, a presumably constant existential crisis that’s both hurt and helped him: He insists his uneasiness about everyday things helped him write songs about anxiety with both comfort and ease.
To describe this simply as “bedroom R&B” would be a disservice. Ashin’s voice isn’t as understated and confident as those of Andrew and Daniel Aged from indie R&B duo Inc., his tenuous tenor less angelically emotive than Active Child’s Pat Grossi. Instead, Ashin’s approach is gauzy, breathy, delicate, and almost permanently fraught with the kind of raw, restrained emotion found on, say, “Purple Rain,” by his idol Prince. And like Prince, he’s not so much an R&B singer as a full-blown solo pop project. Any similarities to digital crooners like How to Dress Well’s Tom Kemp rest on their shared fascination with isolated intimacy, which ensures that Ashin’s self-proclaimed frustrations about how to relate to other people — whether he’s ruminating on ex-lovers (“A Lie”), entertaining murky thoughts about the afterlife (“Gonna Die”), or coping with a sickly grandmother (“Counting”) — are delivered with such vague sentiment that almost everything here sounds like a lovesick break-up song. Translated, “Autre Ne Veut” means “I want no other.”
Contention is Anxiety‘s primary, constantly threatened goal: The easy, reflective groove of “Counting” (“I’m counting on the idea / That you’ll stay”) suddenly tenses up with the inclusion of a random blaring horn or razor cuts of scraping, metallic synths, while “Promises” proclaims, “This is the last heartbreak / That will ever have to do with us” before the words are chopped and sucked up into a shimmering dream-pop cloud backed by hammering drums. Ashin once remarked that his track “Ego Free, Sex Free” drew inspiration from Usher’s “Climax” — both describe volatile emotions without succumbing to them. Throughout Anxiety, the words and the music tussle like this: His sonic ideas are subtle and elaborately produced, while his lyrical declarations are plainly worded and fraught with meaning.
Instead of comparing Ashin to his mainstream R&B counterparts — the introspective lovability of Frank Ocean or the refined sexiness of Usher’s more slow-jam-oriented moments — it’s clear he’d have an easier time relating to the pop direction of Timbaland-era Justin Timberlake. In fact, after a couple listens to album highlight “Play by Play,” with all its grand hooks and hazy ambience washing over the stuttering echoes of homegrown drum machines, it starts to resemble another Timbaland radio hit: OneRepublic’s “Apologize.” There are more indie-scene influences, as well: Ashin channels former roommate and Software label boss Daniel Lopatin’s ability to conjure ambient landscapes out of soft dissonance, not to mention the dream-pop stylings of sister duo Zambri (who providing backing vocals here) or Teengirl Fantasy’s dynamic, experimental, hallucinatory pop.
But amid all the dreamy, atmospheric stylings, dissonance remains. Intentional or otherwise, Ashin’s commitment to his own self-awareness overwhelmingly sets the tone for Anxiety, making it an album that’s easy to get lost in, or easy to get lost trying to get out of. The songs unfold carefully, each reflective of some conflict or another, but handled with restrained acceptance rather than any sort of gripping torment. (When he sings, “I’ll be okay for a while” on “I’m Gonna Die,” the uneasiness and resignation is especially palpable.) Despite subjecting himself to psychoanalysis and attempting to purge himself of ego, Ashin has created something emphatically empathetic out of his inner turmoil. He’s going through it like everyone else, but the very personal Anxiety is remarkably messy, dramatic, poignant, and at times, beautiful.