With his third full-length album Age of Transparency, Autre Ne Veut (real name Arthur Ashin) continues to explore the fringes of post-R&B. He expands upon the eclectic experiment on the genre that was 2013’s critically acclaimed Anxiety by incorporating more elements of jazz into the mix.
Ashin began recording by playing with a full jazz band and then later took the recordings into the studio to cut, sample, and add electronic elements and other flourishes. The result is an album that always feels firmly rooted even at its most incongruous moments. Such moments appear early and often. “On and On (Reprise)” begins the album with Ashin whispering a raspy croon over discordant piano, bass, and horns that sputter, skip, and drop in and out of tune. Ashin’s voice slowly builds in intensity, his voice cracking as he screams “push me harder, baby,” accompanied by increasingly frenetic music. The song is equal parts evocative and disorienting, like most of the album.
The skittering electronica of “World War Pt. 2” finds Ashin exploring isolation and depression. “Everywhere you wanna be is not there, face it,” sing background vocalists over a frenzied beat that is jarring for its frequent shifts in speed and tone. The title track deftly blends jazz instruments, an R&B groove, a choir, and a sing-along pop chorus in a way that somehow seems coherent. The upbeat tone of that chorus pushes against the gloomy subject matter, as Ashin provocatively asks, “Don’t you know it’s never enough?”
Ashin appears to be playing it straight with breakup track “Over Now,” until the slow jam is abruptly bludgeoned with cacophonic white noise, an unwelcome intrusion mirroring the mental state of the jolted lover. The hook-laden “Switch Hitter” is Autre Ne Veut at his catchiest. An infectious electronic dance beat propels the track as it speeds along, aided by flourishes both subtle – sparse piano lines and vocal harmonies – and overwhelming – like the electronic squeal in the chorus.
Throughout Age of Transparency, Ashin seems on the verge of losing control. Lyrically and musically he careens from naked vulnerability to a carefully layered façade. Ashin stretches his vocals to the breaking point and beyond, eschewing the typical smooth quality of an R&B singer for the raw emotion of a cracked voice, breathy falsetto, and vibrato that wavers in despair. Age of Transparency is at times brilliant and at times frustrating, but always interesting even when it misfires.