March 3, 2013 No comments yet
That framed blank space being presented by those four gloved hands was intended to depict famed Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s pastel print of “The Scream”. Conceptually, the interpretation of this cover might suggest a re-purposing of the standard responses developed toward how we (re: general, educated public) receive classic art. A sort of “stand back and ingest the full picture, including the human touch behind the exhibit itself” take on cultural staples. It could mean that, or it could just be Brooklyn experimental R&B purveyor, Arthur Ashin, (better known as Autre Ne Veut) attempting to display one of his favorite pieces as album art without having to shamelessly commit to all four corners. Either way, the painting — for what can only be ascertained as copyright turmoil — has since been removed on all distributions of the record, making for an even more effective cover by way of a, possibly futile, retrospective metaphor for Autre Ne Veut’s music. That metaphoric coincidence, as I like to see it, is an incidental lacking of substance.
To be clear, Anxiety, Ashin’s second full length release, is full of real, almost voyeuristic emotion. Palpable inclusions into the love, lust and heartbreak of a more than romantically open songwriter are crooned over anthem, after ballad, after aria, in strikingly emotive candor. Where his self-titled debut was alluring in its rawness, Anxiety is raw in its expository composition. Opener “Play By Play” is gigantic, layering shimmering synth on top of echoing drums and an undercurrent of ambient bass chords. Ashin has a way of equaling tension with his voice, often rising to compensate for moments in the instrumentation that may feel dry, and backing off when things are just about to climax naturally. That’s why a song like “Ego Free Sex Free” can be just as devoid of any irony or winking in its audacious sensuality, because there’s no reason not to believe that the earnest progression behind the bouncing vocal sample and atmospheric keyboard isn’t born of passion.
Yet, I can’t shake the thought that, upon leaving this album, I didn’t take anything away from it that I didn’t already have to put in myself. All of it sounds good, Ashin’s voice is stellar at times, and he never brings a song down — often crooning to the point of a cracking voice, adding another layer of organic ardor — but none of it seems to vary enough to inflict any reaction other than, “oh, well that was pretty.” Now, is that the purest form of cynicism to apply to this type of music? Sure. But, it’d be inappropriate cynicism if anything on Anxiety was daring enough to be prominently different than the song that came before it. “Counting” enlists some horns and some assorted percussion, but, aside from an alarming transition from mid refrain to chorus, Ashin essentially uses these new instruments to paint the same lines he could have drawn himself, with the same set of tools he’d already been using. Elsewhere, “A Lie” carries an interesting melody and a wealth of backup singers to help build it up to scale, but lands on the same ethereal, lofty plain as we’ve heard him master before. For as bold as the inchoate ideas are here, Ashin, at every chance, tends to play them as safe and to-the-chest as possible.
What ends up being most affective on Anxiety is nestled deeper into the record. “Gonna Die” is a strong ballad that isn’t so stuck in fitting the template of the album that it unintentionally conjures a Sting circa Dream of Blue Turtles (specifically “Children’s Crusade”) sense. That, coupled with the stunningly delivered “Don’t Look Back” prove that Ashin can pull off the whole “experimental soul virtuoso” act if he takes the focus off of the sum of the parts, and applies it more to how they relate to one another. Many of the issues come from a tendency to put instruments and harmonies in inopportune spots, just for the sake of hitting those notes, but the best moments here are when Autre Ne Veut shows some semblance of restraint. Not that his “collage of shiny alt-pop” approach can’t leave an impact, (“Promises” is well executed in its cloying cacophony) but Ashin tends to pull all of his conceptual pieces together easier when he’s not trying so hard to simply surprise the listener, and just services the natural development of the song.
R&B hasn’t really been perceived as this broad of a genre in a very long time; at least not in the manner as it’s widely covered by various outlets. No doubt, Anxiety will shallowly get lumped in with other musicians experimenting in R&B, — The Weeknd, How to Dress Well and, to a (much) lesser extent, Frank Ocean — yet, that’s all for the sake of finding a reference point. But, where I will give Autre Ne Veut full creative recognition is his ability to find his own sound and flesh it out, mid-album. It’s not the most interesting motif, and while there are most definitely areas for growth, (particularly, meshing his grandiosity with his sometime nasally, operatic vocal approach) nothing on Anxiety suggests that Ashin can’t cull his best qualities into one strong, lasting body of work. On the other hand, nothing on Anxiety suggest that this is that body of work.