It’s easy to project self-consciousness from under a cloak of anonymity. As the Weeknd, Burial, MF Doom and countless other less high-profile but equally shrouded artists can attest, the withholding of personal information and basic autobiographical details not only draws in fans with a sense of mystery, but it also makes you seem deep, troubled or complicated. What’s he or she hiding? Why all the secrecy? What do they have to lose? On Anxiety, the second full-length from Autre Ne Veut, now revealed to be the project of psychology grad student Arthur Ashin, these simple questions are cast aside in favor of a more penetrating and thoughtful form of expression: aggressive vulnerability. With its histrionic vocal performances, its maximalist synth arrangements and its fractured R&B song structures, Anxiety is a powerful and needy record, constantly seeking your approval while not always seeming comfortable with itself.
It helps that Autre Ne Veut’s neediness is expressed via Ashin’s coy, lithe voice. Not only can Ashin actually sing, but he’s willing to make his vocal parts sound alienating and potentially ugly to some ears for the benefit of a song. He’s not afraid to reach for notes seemingly beyond his reach, let out a menacing growl, moan like a sex-starved maniac or dip into an uneasy falsetto. Despite his adventurous vocal choices, recent comparisons to Prince, Usher or Frank Ocean feel a bit unearned or at least misdirected. Despite the rise of “alt-R&B” or whatever you feel comfortable calling it, Ashin is still working within similar melody-heavy dance-pop terrain explored by Brooklyn acts like Bear In Heaven and Yeasayer. Songs like “O.M.G.” from Autre Ne Veut’s 2010 self-titled, with its Avey Tare-like vocals show the lingering Animal Collective influence, and it’s unsurprising to learn that Ashin’s friend Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never has been a key collaborator on the project.
Ashin’s neurotic style announces itself on the album’s stunning opener, “Play By Play,” which builds on an enchanting, mystical chime-like sound and reaches a full-on cathartic howl as he cries out, “I just called you up to get that play by play by play by play/Don’t ever leave me alone.” Notice that Ashin’s pleading comes couched in nebulous verbal terms: The play by play is just as important as the act itself. With some help from Brooklyn sister duo Zambri on backing vocals, the song builds to a collapsing, tantalizing swirl. That pulsating energy only increases on the equally impressive “Counting,” which uses airy synths, elephant-orgasm saxophones and a deceptively simple beat to describe Ashin’s feelings about calling his grandmother. It’s the strongest one-two opening punch on an album I’ve heard this year.
It’s not surprising that Ashin isn’t able to maintain that level of emotional intensity and song-craft for the whole album, though he comes close to recapturing it at points. “Ego Free Sex Free” is as physical and sensuous as the record gets, Ashin writhing and wailing over widescreen phaser synths and a souped-up clap-and-high-hats beat that knows just when to pull back and let shit breathe. It’s a song that’s unembarrassed by its subject matter—”Your sexy body,” croons Ashin—but honest enough to acknowledge and engage the potential awkwardness of the frank sexual material. Later he turns his unflinching eye to the end of a relationship on “World War,” and it’s devastating.
Ashin occasionally relies too much on atmospherics over songwriting, letting his arrangements get a little busy (“Promises”) or syrupy (“A Lie”). Similarly, some songs cut out too early, coming to abrupt endings right when Ashin is settling into a groove: The goth Sleigh Bells guitar freakout “Warning” and the fatalistic Tangerine Dream meditation “Gonna Die” both feel underdeveloped, despite featuring some of Ashin’s most expressive and emotive singing. They contain some of the few moments on the album when Ashin seems hesitant, and this is not a record that’s notable for its restraint or its modesty. With all its messy emotions, unfiltered memories and contradicting revelations, Anxiety shows that it’s not only possible to write a self-conscious record without the protective shield of anonymity, it can be just as thrilling.