Interesting things are happening in R&B lately, with guys like Frank Ocean and Miguel and the Weeknd pushing the genre in directions both introspective and sonically expansive, somehow getting popular in the process. But Arthur Ashin, who records as Autre Ne Veut, isn’t really a part of that. Like his buddy How To Dress Well, Ashin is a studio-nerd type, a devotee of various way-out musical styles who’s found ways to use some of the sonic language of R&B to get at ideas and feelings that he might not have accessed otherwise. Anxiety, Autre Ne Veut’s second album, is emotionally genuine music, but it’s not R&B any more than Channel Pressure, the album from Ashin’s label bosses Ford & Lopatin, was ’80s TV-show theme music. If we try to judge Anxiety as straight-up R&B, it’ll always come up lacking — Ashin’s voice is nowhere near as buttery and effortless as those of the singers who obviously influenced him, his hooks come and go at will, his backing tracks are more about haze than languor. But as an album of inward-looking pop-music from a pop-music outsider, Anxiety shines.
Therapy and emotional disorders are big themes in Ashin’s music and, it seems, in his life. Ashin suffers from anxiety disorders, and he’s got a masters in psychology. When he started recording under a pseudonym and hiding his identity, it wasn’t to create some manufactured sense of mystique; it was so his Google results wouldn’t hurt his chances to become a clinical psychologist. He’s 30, way older than your average buzzed-about artist, and so he’s been living with his ideas and his fears for longer. And while the sense of longing in his music might sound familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with R. Kelly, the yearning doesn’t seem to be as much about sex or passion or religious transcendence. It’s about solidity and reassurance, about going deep inside your own head and taking charge of things. Even when he’s singing about sex, or the lack of it, there’s a nervous desperation that overwhelms everything else: “Sometimes I see your face / I’m under right now / Rather just stand here / Fighting you / World war.”
For an artist so deep in his own brain, though, Ashin does have firm roots in a musical scene: A loose Brooklyn-based synth-drone community that favors warp and flux over the concrete emotional expression that Ashin himself hints at. Ashin’s college roomate was Daniel Lopatin, so he was there to see the Oneohtrix Point Never sound develop firsthand; he also credits Lopatin as the prime consultant he’d bounce ideas off of when he was figuring out his own sound. And the two sisters from the hazy electro group Zambri sing backup throughout Anxiety, giving a surprisingly confident base for Ashin’s own vocal flights. Those connections matter because the sound at work here has a lot more to with Lopatin than with, say, Rodney Jerkins or Babyface. Ashin is the album’s main producer, and his tracks don’t glide or ripple; they stumble and sputter and sometimes dissolve into digital noise. They’ve got that same gasping, unsettled, out-of-focus quality that Lopatin brings to his own music. And as with Lopatin, those elements of rupture don’t hide the beauty of this music; they just warp it a bit.
Ashin studied as a classical vocalist in high school, and he’s got a thin, crystalline voice that never strains to capture the ferocious high notes he wants. But it’s got none of the churchy abandon or pyrotechnic virtuosity that straight-up R&B singers bring to their craft. If he was trying to make straight-up R&B, that would be a problem, but that voice actually works perfectly to capture the emotional dissonance that his music targets. Amid the stabbing sax-squawks of “Counting” or the drowning ’80s-metal guitar-crunches of “Warning,” or even being cut into shards on “Promises,” that voice sounds completely at home. Ashin, then, has used his strengths and proclivities to come up with his own hybrid genre: A sort of drone-soul that I’ve never heard before and that, in his hands, is a powerful thing.
Other albums of note out this week:
• AMOK, the inward-looking jitter-groove debut from Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace project.
• Mount Moriah’s excellent country-rock ramble Miracle Temple.
• Smiths guitar god Johnny Marr’s technical solo debut The Messenger.
• Sally Shapiro’s charming twee-disco reverie Somewhere Else.
• Doldrums’ darkly synthetic Lesser Evil.
• Golden Grrls’ sunny self-titled lo-fi punk debut.