By referring to his own music as “failure pop,” Autre Ne Veut singer Arthur Ashin has set up a series of of problems. For one, it’s exactly the type of remark that tips the scale from self-deprecating to self-defeating, and it serves as a dog whistle for defensive R&B fans looking to condemn or dismiss his attempts to rework and offer his own variation on classic pop forms. It’s the type of playful remark that’s perhaps fitting for the bedroom project of a grad student, which is how Autre Ne Veut began, but when you can sing like Ashin does on his new sophomore album, Anxiety, and you can pack Santos Party House with eager, cat-calling fans on a Wednesday, like Ashin did last night, it’s unnecessary at best and destructive at worst. This isn’t failure pop anymore. As Ashin is surely learning, it’s difficult to hold your audience at arm’s length when they’re reaching out to grab you.
The evening’s opener, Montreal synth duo Majical Cloudz, provided a compelling example of what Autre Ne Veut might look like if Ashin remained a more alienating, obtuse presence. Clad in a white T-shirt tucked into his black pants, Cloudz’s vocalist Devon Welsh was a magnetic frontman, more post-punk than art-pop. His shaved head and his stark, confessional lyrics—”I don’t wanna think about dying alone,” he sang over the din of the bar—do most of the work, though he isn’t afraid to make the occasional precise and minimal dance move. Like Ashin, there’s a bit of self-sabotage at work here: At one point Welsh told the audience, “This song is really cheesy. You can tune out and I’ll let you know when it’s over.”
But it wasn’t cheesy; it was a good song! Perhaps that type of modesty is just a feature of such hushed, brooding music. Welsh’s partner, Matthew Otto, remained cloaked in mystery in the back, summoning graceful blips and tremulous rumbles from his equipment, crafting hypnotic drones that served as balloons for Welsh’s dart-like lyrics to puncture. The pair did such an effective job of evoking very specific feelings—cautious dread, mostly—that it made you wish Otto and Welsh had a few more musical tools at their disposal. As the set wore on, I found myself imagining fuller variations of the songs—a Phil Collins drum fill here, a Smashing Pumpkins crescendo there—and I began to wonder if the project had reached the logical endpoint of what you can do with such a limited set of aesthetic parameters.
When Autre Ne Veut took the stage, it was immediately apparent that the band had made a leap in sound and ambition. Joined by a pair of female back-up singers and a drummer, Ashin was free to roam the stage, decked out in billowy black pants, a black jacket and a black backward baseball cap. The band started off with “Play By Play,” the opening track off of Anxiety, and at first I was nervous that Ashin’s voice wouldn’t be up to the task of reproducing the often hysterical vocal pyrotechnics on the record. His voice sounded strained and gruff, struggling to hit the startling falsettos on the new record, but when the the back-up singers came in, the power of Ashin’s arrangements shined through, and he transformed into a charismatic lothario. Despite a few technical hiccups throughout the night, he remained in control of the room, giving songs like “Counting” and “World War” the appropriate emotional wallop.
There was a moment about midway through the set that encapsulated Autre Ne Veut’s peculiar appeal: As the backing track wailed away, Ashin took a break from his wildly expressive singing to play some air-guitar. He really leaned into the invisible instrument, making the type of face that’s typically reserved for embarrassing family photos or secret bedroom Guns ‘N’ Roses jam sessions. It was a moment of total vulnerability, a silly but endearing indicator that even as Autre Ne Veut expands its musical scope and its fan-base, Ashin remains committed to a type of honesty that transcends irony.