Everyone who talks about Arthur Ashin’s music talks about it in R&B terms, but it’s increasingly apparent that Ashin is not an R&B singer, that that whole context just doesn’t make any sense for him. You can see it for yourself in Ashin’s video for “Panic Room,” the second single from his new Age Of Transparency video. This is a music video with no actual music. Instead, it’s just Ashin walking into a blank audition room, attempting to impress a handful of insider types (one of whom is Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen, someone who plenty of indie music types would really like to impress). Ashin walks into the room and sings his song a cappella, and it’s not a smooth performance. He’s not in control of his instrument in the way just about every R&B singer ever has been. Instead, he’s all over the place, rasping and squeaking and moaning. He flinches and squeezes his eyes shut tight and holds one hand up to his forehead like he’s fighting off a headache. He falls to his knees as his voice shies further and further away from anything resembling conventional melody. It’s like the song is singing him, rather than vice versa. And his words are as clammy and intense as his performance: “I found a place that I can lock you up tight and still make you think that you’re free.” And yet, watching it, I empathize more with the performer than with the judges who watch dispassionately and eventually cut him off. (This, even though my job, like Cohen’s, actually involves judging music like this.) The Ashin of that video is a bit of a mess, but he’s putting it all out there. The Ashin of Age Of Transparency isn’t much different.
Age Of Transparency is, by rights, the moment Ashin’s Autre Ne Veut project should leap out of the noise-drone underground and into something resembling the mainstream — or, since there really is no mainstream anymore, at least into the zone where his music ends up in TV ads. When last we heard from Ashin, he was self producing his insular glitch-soul and releasing it on Software, the label most associated with his former roommate Oneohtrix Point Never. This time around, he’s on a bigger label, with a bigger management company behind him. He’s still self-producing, but he’s got more toys at his disposal. The Zambri twins, who sang backup on Ashin’s 2013 album Anxiety, return on backing vocals, but they’re joined by a full choir. Joel Ford, of Ford & Lopatin and Yung Ejecta, supplies some additional production again, but this time around, it’s pretty clearly Ashin at the controls. The album’s sound is thicker and fuller than Anxiety was, and there’s usually a full jazz-addled band sawing away under Ashin’s voice. Ashin spent a year and a half working on the album, throwing himself into the task completely, and there are moments where it attains a sort of cinematic grandeur that Anxiety only sometimes hinted at. But this isn’t confident, professional music. If anything, it’s even more consumed with ideas of rupture and self-laceration than Anxiety was.
There’s a sense of wriggling, insatiable discomfort that always threatens to swallow the album whole. It’s there from the very opening moments. The album opens with Ashin’s voice straining flatly for falsetto, tense and drawn out. He sounds like he’s trying to sing the word “baby,” but before he finishes even a syllable, a digital bleep, like level-completed Nintendo sound effect, comes along and interrupts him. The song he’s singing is “On And On (Reprise),” a very different version of a twisting, heaving song that he gave to the Adult Swim Singles Series two years ago. The older version of the song was faster, almost dancey, albeit marred by an intentionally out-of-tune synth riff. This new version is slow and luxurious, with that jazz band tinkling and tootling underneath him like they’re just starting to get warmed up for some serious free-jazz flights. But all these digital effects keep coming in and interfering. The song will speed up or slow down in unnatural ways, or it’ll dissolve into CGI static before starting up again. The effect is a bit like attempting to zone out, to concentrate on a feeling, while your phone keeps informing you, via pop-up notification, of shit that you didn’t need to know. One type of chaos keeps stepping on another. It’s a theme throughout the album: Digital rupture sliding in whenever things are about to take flight. That stuff is certainly an affectation on Ashin’s part, and it can be really irritating sometimes. But then, it’s also the point. After all, Ashin isn’t making R&B, or anything really like R&B, though it draws on that tradition sometimes. Instead, he’s making an utterly interior strain of experimental pop music. These moments of rupture are there to illustrate the things going on within our souls at the moment, on that stressed-out sense of constantly monitoring everything you’re supposed to be monitoring. Or that’s my read on it, anyway. But even if I’m wrong, if that’s not the intent, those fractures in the music don’t strike me as pure pretension, the way so many musical fractures do. Instead, they make me feel something. Ashin’s music is good for that.
But Age Of Transparency isn’t just a monument to chaos. All those moments of rupture — the digital-distortion shit, the moments that Ashin’s voice fails him, the hiccuping, ascending I-I-I-I sample on “World War Pt. 2” — make for an unstable listening experience. But they also serve to highlight the moments when everything falls into place and clicks. On the album’s title track, this welling-up ambience, these low-pitched choral aaahs and random piano twinkles, suddenly coalesce into an actual groove, and it sounds badass. The members of the choir are gasping in rhythm, the saxophone squawks are hitting at the exact right moments, and Ashin is just gliding over all of it. That doesn’t happen until nearly two minutes into a six-minute song, and it falls back apart into chaos by the time the song ends. But while everything is working in concert together, it’s beautiful. It happens again on the two songs that end the album. “Over Now” starts out sounding like that moment when an orchestra is tuning up, and it ends with Ashin eulogizing a relationship over and over: “It’s over now, it’s over now.” You have to wait for the beauty, but when it comes rising out of the amorphous goo of the track, you recognize it. And then the album ends with the seven-minute burst of rapture “Get Out,” which starts out majestic and somehow never loses its way over seven and a half minutes. It’s the one moment when Ashin finally turns everything on, when you can hear the joy of these choir singers and musicians pushing one another. It’s a song where you can hear every bit of effort put into it, which is another thing that sets it apart from R&B the way we’ve come to know it. (Even How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell, probably Ashin’s closest contemporary, is a much lighter and breezier singer and arranger than Ashin is.) But for that one shining moment, all that effort translates into something grand and uncomplicated.
Age Of Transparency is out 10/2 on Downtown. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Deafheaven’s heaving, triumphant New Bermuda (which would’ve been Album Of The Week if it hadn’t already gotten a Premature Evaluation).
• Kylesa’s thundering, psychedelic, badass Exhausting Fire.
• Eagles Of Death Metal’s revved-up, sardonic Camaro-rocker Zipper Down.
• Wavves’ squalling, tuneful ass-kicker V.
• Janet Jackson’s sparkling, better-than-it-has-to-be comeback Unbreakable.
• Spencer Radcliffe’s fractured, psychedelic full-length debut Looking In.
• Shopping’s angular punker Why Choose.
• Loma Prieta’s expressionistic screamo attack Self Portrait.
• Mal Blum’s tough, smart DIY album You Look A Lot Like Me.
• John Grant’s authoritative seen-it-all dance-pop record Grey Tickles, Black Pressure.
• Wild Throne’s vicious, hard-shredding debut Harvest Of Darkness.
• Promised Land’s scuzzy, grungy For Use And Delight.
• Odetta Hartman’s hushed Americana debut 222.
• Emile & Ogden’s operatic folker 10 000.
• Gemma’s lush, moody As Ever.
• Chad Valley’s synthy, glimmering, thoughtful Entirely New Blue.
• Joe Jackson’s art-pop return Fast Forward.
• Squeeze’s reunion album Cradle To The Grave.
• Line & Circle’s sharp jangler Split Figure.
• Fern Mayo’s urgent, ’90s-influenced Happy Together.
• Blitzen Trapper’s rustic roots-rocker All Across This Land.
• Indian Handcrafts’ muscular stoner-metal pummeler Creeps.
• Jono McCleery’s elegant, elliptical Pagodes.
• Kyle’s approachable, horrifically titled rap album Smyle.
• Larry Gus’ wide-ranging dance album I Need New Eyes.
• Darkstar’s foggy electronic pop LP Foam Island.
• Brian Carpenter & The Confessions’ dark, heavy The Far End Of The World.
• Monika’s ’70s disco-pop pastiche Secret In The Dark.
• Gang Signs’ tense, moody Geist.
• Ms. John Soda’s twee acoustic-electronic Loom.
• Satan’s old-school metal wrecker Atom By Atom.
• Yvette’s Time Management EP.
• DJ Spinn’s Off That Loud EP.