The more music Arthur Ashin makes, the more it rips itself apart at the seams. His new album as Autre Ne Veut makes his 2013 breakthrough, Anxiety, sound polished, slick, even tame by comparison. Its edges bleed into Twin Shadow’s Confess and How to Dress Well’s Total Loss and Active Child’s You Are All I See, early decade albums that embraced melodrama as though the dream of the ‘80s had never died. It didn’t sound like Ashin was holding anything back at the time, but we hadn’t seen just how unhinged he could get.
Age of Transparency sees Autre Ne Veut’s careful flourishes disintegrate and combust. Ashin sings through a booby-trapped maze of glitches, his loose jazz instrumentation devolving into what sounds like a record sped up and slowed down until the needle shreds its grooves. His voice pixelates artificially, and that’s only after he’s stretched it out to its grittiest natural extremes. Certain songs — “Over Now” especially — seem harvested from the era of bad CD rips and encoding disasters.
Like How to Dress Well’s “What Is This Heart?”, Age of Transparency sidles away from the trappings of R&B and neo-soul into big, unabashed pop. “Panic Room” sounds like a late ‘90s chart-topper run through a blender and garnished with a few moments of upright bass. and buzzed-out electric guitar. A chorus backs Ashin up at the chorus, but it’s hard to tell if the voices you hear ever came from flesh and blood humans or if they were drawn up from Autre Ne Veut’s extensive bag of digital tricks.
Ashin’s lyrics outline the fevered breakdown of a relationship, and the narrative makes the album’s instrumental instability all the more poignant. More than desire, he sings about lack — the needling, constant worry that the love he has in his life pales in comparison to some abstract union, some wished-for companionship. The record’s stunning centerpiece “Age of Transparency” has him repeating the words “it’s never enough,” as though the want he carries around inside of him will always be bigger than anything he could hope to fill it with. All the while, his mottled instrumentation swells and then shatters, reaches its zenith only to find the ground dropped out from beneath it. Pianos and saxophones flutter to the bottom of the mix, their notes out of key with the rest of the song, clashing and collapsing as the vocals fade.
Age of Transparency is that rare record that manages astonishing density without ever feeling crowded. The production swirls in the air like glitter in water, and it catches new light on each listen. At the center of it all is Ashin’s voice, urgent and stressed but cynical enough to keep the stakes high without veering into cliche. He sounds constantly torn between what he wants and what he’s trying to run from, and how he’s supposed to reconcile his emotions when they’re one and the same.
This is as raw-edged and chaotic as formal pop can get. It slips on some of its own ambitions — “Switch Hitter” rings more annoying than effectively abrasive, and the ascending vocaloid notes on “World War Pt. 2” are a shade too PC Music for comfort here — but its risks are huge, and their rewards equally so. Autre Ne Veut aims to wrestle with the contradictions inherent in love and loss, not simply smooth them over. Age of Transparency is an emotional pop record that aims for more than comfort; it wants to see you at your most wounded and pick at the scabs until the pain starts to feel good.
Essential Tracks: “Panic Room”, “Age of Transparency”