When Autre Ne Veut (real name Arthur Ashin) announced he was releasing a new album, set for release earlier this year, I was of course delighted. I enjoyed his self titled debut, not to mention the EP ‘Body’, and his collaboration with Seahawks which followed. However, Anxiety’s impending arrival was tinged with some doubt. Why? My brain has, now that it has gone beyond the thirty year point, absorbed too many ubiquitously inane clichés to resist their conglomerated influence. One of the worst clichés has to with sophomore albums being ‘difficult’, even though it’s never been divulged and or analysed as to why this is specifically the case – only that it is, sometimes. Pedantry insists that if this phenomenon is to be deigned as a ‘thing’, that it be defined as a misnomer, or a load of bollocks preferably. Having loved his first album so much, too much in reality, this nonsense somehow managed to weigh on my mind. The thought of not liking “Anxiety” wasn’t pleasant, nor was the notion that it was all a flash in the pan, a one album wonder. Don’t worry, no more clichés from this point on. Honest.
My concern, or anxiety (why not?), stemmed from losing a feeling of self-satisfaction that once existed. If you discover something new that’s fantastic, especially musically, there’s nothing else like it. The knowledge that you’ve expanded and improved your horizons is extremely edifying, and you don’t want it to end, especially if you’ve discovered that something yourself. That’s why true music aficionados never stop looking. How can you ever be satisfied with satisfaction?
Once that connection has been established you want your favourite band or performer to keep churning out the quality albums, and for it to never end. All things end of course, and if you go by a quote from the movie Cocktail starring a pre-scientology Tom Cruise, then ‘all things end badly, otherwise they wouldn’t end’. At some point, Ashin will either stop making music, or will make something that I genuinely dislike.
Still, I needn’t have worried, we haven’t reached that inevitability, as “Anxiety” is a clear step up from his debut.
But this is also a problem, as his debut album now suffers by comparison. Anxiety’s superior production and mastering, in particular, now makes “Autre Ne Veut” sound tinny and flat in certain places.
“Autre Ne Veut” evoked the comforting, if not entirely real, notion it was still possible, in the sea of shite that pop music has become, that talent and genuine craftsmanship can still transcend stylists, marketing, prosaic production and access to high end equipment. It was the kind of music you could imagine someone making in their bedroom on a shitty keyboard bought in the nineties, and or a cheap synth repatriated from the attic/basement/garage. Even if you couldn’t imagine yourself making it, it elevated your spirit at the possibility that someone else could.
Not only that but the sound of “Autre Ne Veut” brought together the best aspects of the various incarnations and sub genres of pop music that existed and you loved throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties. Its sound was crafted by the unashamedly shameless borrowing of elements from Roxy Music, AR Kane, a bit of Prince’s self-indulgent falsetto squealing – which you secretly, or not so secretly love – mix this with some Duran Duran after a cocaine binge, and the ensuing aneurysm, and voila, you have a winning combination.
Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with “Autre Ne Veut”. Mainstream pop music is so fucking dire these days. It’s a mediocre derivative cascade of repetitive, distressed, convoluted, always (why is it always?) autotuney garbage which perpetually inhabits the mainstream, so when anyone even remotely good comes along I tend to latch on in exasperated relief. Janelle Monae is the most recent example of this, she has one hundredth of the Twitter followers that Justin Bieber does. Yet it is her who quotes her concept from Philip Dick novels, and follows through with a diverse selection of well crafted songs. The injustice of popularity exemplifies a widespread lack of taste, and is an affront to hope and ambition. I’m no fan of Lady Gaga’s music, but at least she is somewhat odd. Steve Strange is envious, no doubt, as he thought of it first. Other than that, pickings are slim for truly inventive interpretations within the wave (see what I did there?) of eighties inflected pop that’s been the vogue in recent years.
“Anxiety” continues down that path, but to categorise it so ingenuously doesn’t do it justice. Neither does the moniker ‘Failure Pop’ that’s been casually thrown its way. Yes, the tag’s supposed to be disingenuously ironic, and people probably feel vindicated in having this impression, given one of the tracks on “Anxiety” is titled ‘Wanna Dance With Somebody’, which while it isn’t a cover, is clearly an ode to Whitney Houston, the ‘Queen of Divas’ if you go by Autre Ne Veut’s twitter account. Still, if this is ‘Failure Pop’, then what does ‘Success Pop’ sound like? It sounds like “Anxiety”, that’s what.
Compositionally ‘Ego Free Sex Free’ has the most in common with most of the songs that populated his debut. It has the pulsating synth that not only survives on its own, but doesn’t change pace or tone, and thrives when married by Ashin’s drone. Its other constituent effects, mostly overdubs of Ashin’s voice distorted to varying tones and degrees, which in isolation would be trashy, cheap and twee, work well in their context. There’s even a guitar lick which arrives to imbue the songs smug self satisfied ending. It’s a tremendous song which speaks to the simplicity that’s synonymous with all great pop music. Less is more and complexity often leads to mediocrity.
‘Play By Play’ is the album’s opening track and Ashin sets his stall out immediately with a shimmering rolling synth, followed by a reverberating pang, both effects that come straight from the ambiance of an eighties themed dive bar in some Blade Runner-esque world. The song itself retains an unremarkable structure for its first two minutes, as Arkin delivers an unrepentant indignant soliloquy that also doubles as a conversation and reflective musings ‘Dont make me help and make me odder’, of the personality foibles in relationships, ‘You make me whole, you make me crawl/And make me harder’, and its breakdown which doubles as the crescendo. Of course, if you’re like me, and you’ve listened to his past material, you know all of this is you being primed for the killer hook, the newbie’s not so much. Nobody does hooks better, and Play by Play’s is as infectious as it gets, and given the buildup its payoff is doubly satisfying. If you don’t sign along to it then you have an aversion to joy or something equally gruesome like a lack of good taste.
‘Play by Play’ best emphasises the differences in budget and access to superior production can make to enhance existing ideas, expanding their range. By having a crisper mastering and a wider variation in sounds and vocalists available his sound has become enriched with layering, and a confidence to let certain constituents speak for or exist on their own at just the right time.
‘Counting’ is another song whose construction has been benefitted by availability of greater choice. On “Autre Ne Veut” there was an understandably limited selection of synth baselines that all the songs were based on. ‘Counting’ uses a tortured sax sound at its climax, with industrial like metal clangs throughout. The timing of the pauses in sound are well judged. Clearly this is a more discerning, composed structuring of songs that comes with a songwriter gaining greater self assurance.
I had my own ideas what ‘Counting’ was about, but I won’t go over them here, as they’re embarrassingly disparate from its actual meaning, as outlined here by the man himself. Yes, I know, it’s Pitchfork, but watch the whole thing, it has a lovely live piano only version of the song. It would be nice if Ashin put this on his Soundcloud page. It never hurts to ask.
It’s understandable that most would go for either ‘Counting’ and ‘Play by Play’as being the album’s two standout tracks, but I prefer ‘A Lie’ and ‘World War’ for other, more personal reasons.
‘World War’ has two distinct phases. Technically this might not be entirely new, even for the Autre Ne Veut project, as on his debut ‘Drama Cum Drama’ provided a distinct shift. However the emphasis between the split in ‘World War’ is. It’s his Stairway to Heaven moment. There’s that lovely bubbling effect which gets louder and louder, and faster, then silence, before the reset kicks in with a smooth as silk synth. Also, I’m a sucker for any singer who embraces the challenge of really going for it. Ashin embraces it on every track he’s ever released, but the end of World War is his best yet as he howls, in various intonations ‘Not gonna be no way no way now way, You’re gonna be my baby.’ The choice to have it as the last track on the album is appropriate, or it seems so to me, as it leaves you to wonder what his third LP will be like, what the next evolutionary step will be? In the meantime you can hit repeat, but it makes you yearn for more material as soon as possible.
This brings us to ‘A lie’, my favourite song from “Anxiety”. Firstly it’s a truly melancholic slushy pop ballad. There’s less reliance on synths, with more emphasis placed on guitar effects, which in isolation are reminiscent of those synonymous with country influenced ballads from the fifties. Dare I say it but the main guitar inflection used in ‘A Lie’ is awfully close to that used in Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’. Nobody was more surprised than me that I made that connection, trust me. Thankfully it’s blunted, and slightly modified, and as such is used with much more effect, it doesn’t distract from Arkin’s superb vocal range, which veers back and forth weaving a sumptuous chorus that ultimately melts away. As the last ninety seconds of the track dissipates slowly it creates a certainty. ‘A Lie’ removes all the silly doubts I had and leaves me convinced that Ashin will make several great records. Of which “Anxiety” is the first of many.