Autre Ne Veut is totally messing with my head. Arthur Ashin, that is—the solo artist who performs under said stage name (loose trans, “I Want No Other”). I swear sometime late last year I spotted Munch’s “The Scream” in advance publicity stills for Anxiety, only now the album art presents an empty frame above the same black backdrop. I swear I spent weeks obsessing over “Counting,” a collaboration between the bedroom R&B phenom and post-everything rhymesayer Mykki Blanco, only now the rapper’s zoom-zooming verses have vanished off the album version. I swear I’ve watched the notoriously press-shy Ashin pop up for interviews at sites for Buzzmedia and MTV, where he appears to steer the conversation about Anxiety toward his mundane experiences with talk therapy and his graduate degree in psychology.
I swear this guy’s messing with my head. Unless Ashin’s shrink shattered about 37 codes of professional conduct, there’s no way in hell Anxiety can be written off as a therapy album. Hell no. Jesus, just listen to the thing: Anxiety stilettos gut-wrenched entrenched psycho-sexual seductive destructive obsessive push and pull over accreting and ascendant deep soul jams… and he’s got interviewers asking him about his freaking grad school program? Psych. Hah.
No, this is no game, but the gamesmanship is on from the opening notes of “Play By Play”: bead-curtain harps entice, sharply countered by an idling, Little Red Corvette chord. Dueling temptations. Baby, please just stay one more night, or a wild night drive to the place where your horses run free. No, none of this is healthy. “Your hold-me-down is my design,” he says. “You make me whole/ you make me crawl,” he says. “Don’t ever leave me alone,” he says. There’s no getting out free and easy. “Play By Play” may well end up the year’s most entrancing single: Ashin’s lissome falsetto revealing its most pleading naked penetralia, cocksure tempo changes, manic mind-fuck percussion, a heaven-sent gospel singer, Christ, I could listen to the track a hundred times in a row—I’ve listened to the track a hundred times in a row—the outro continuing on and on in a pattern that threatens to replicate as long as everyone’s still standing.
Anxiety? Try letting a breakout album ride on an unreal voice that’s been kept trapped in a closet. In all the best ways, Autre Ne Veut’s self-titled debut sounded like a Culture Club tape that had been left sitting on a hot dashboard for the entire summer. For the subsequent Body EP, Ashin teased his vocals out of the warp and water damage, but his performance still remained elusive and restrained.
Anxiety? Try putting out an album that renders its lone maker as emotionally bare as Plastic Ono Band or I Am A Bird Now.
Moving from one electric single to the next, “Counting” trails “Play By Play” in a collision of pained wails and car crash brass. Another relationship at the breaking point, or maybe still the same; maybe the breaking point was there from day one. Jealousy, infidelity, codependence, delusion. “I don’t want the feeling you are not alone,” he says. “This is not your time to make it out,” he says. “I’m counting on the idea that you’ll stay,” he says. Not an agreement, not an instinct, not even a hope—just counting on “the idea” the other won’t ever break it off for good.
Arthur Ashin doesn’t speak or merely sing these words—barbed in bladed desperation, Ashin wields a falsetto that would make “Let’s Stay Together” sound like a sketchy proposition. As a weapon, that cut-glass range is criminally underused. More commonly, there’s the ooh baby falsetto (Al Green); the sad bastard falsetto (For Emma, Forever Ago); the high camp falsetto (“Big Girls Don’t Cry”). Self-protective mechanisms. The seducer adopting a vocal range that exceeds his own as a way of deflecting potential rejection from the precious ego. The grief-stricken separating themselves from pain and loss in a register outside their modal range. But the falsetto is so fully exposed that in immediate hand-to-hand conflict it’s too cutting and too vulnerable for all but the bravest to attempt: Jeff Buckley twisting the falsetto dagger “you should have come over.” Jimmy Somerville scaling aerials to seize his galvanizing selfhood in “Tomorrow” and “Smalltown Boy.”
Deliberately or through diffusion, the influence of Somerville’s Bronski Beat seeps throughout Anxiety: the moody Crockett and Tubbs synths in “Counting” and “Gonna Die”; the crisply articulated drum programming in “Warning”; the vision of hedonistic club anthems as a perilous escape, fleeing toward what looks an awful lot like what’s being left behind.
The repetitions, the repetitions, the repetitions. With pulsing stops and escalating tension, over and over “Promises” reiterates the lines: “It’s the last heartbreak that’ll ever have to do with us/ And you know there were some times when I could get rough/ But… you promised me heaven/ Didn’t you?” Taking clap-stomp sex beats to the brink of transcendence, “Ego Free Sex Free” and “A Lie” ultimately spiral back into forced parting. Ashin offers countless ultimatums, endless variations on the phrase “this is goodbye,” only it’s never actually goodbye: either one trails in obsession or the other returns in need. There may only be one natural end: Ashin starts coming apart in the raw “Darling Nikki” flails of “Warning” and then loses his shit completely in the operatic existential breakdown of “Gonna Die.”
How do you get taken back after someone’s sworn for the last time it’s over? Lose your shit completely. It works, I swear; it’s insidious.
Throughout Anxiety, tracks fail to resolve—“Counting,” “Promises,” “Gonna Die”— and initially I thought it was a songwriting flaw, coming on so fantastically strong there was nowhere left to go. But Autre Ne Veut isn’t just one man alone. Ashin has a little help from his friends, serious studio aces: Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), Joel Ford (Ford & Lopatin) and Al Carlson (engineer for the likes of Yeasayer and Tim Hecker). On multiple listens none of this plays accidental—songs run aground as a means of setting the next episode in motion.
Even the fuzzbomb-dropping closer “World War” can’t end the entanglement: once again Ashin announces “this is goodbye,” but even after the track detonates, the entwined couple find each other in the rubble, forging ahead in a sempiternal outro much like its bookend. The repetition, again and again, “not gonna be…no way no way no way/ you’re gonna be my baby / not gonna be…no way, no way no way/ you’re gonna be my baby” until the words become so fully enmeshed as to have virtually no independent meaning, it messes with your head and there’s no way out but to flee and to stray and to come back wanting not the same old damage but a new mistake exactly like the last.