In his sophomore effort, Arthur Ashin brings a fresh set of themes and instrumental nuances while giving us more of the same of those gleaming synth lines and the oh-so-glorious delivery and presence as a vocalist. Autre Ne Veut’s defining eclectic approach to structure and instrumental arrangement are as present as they have always been, if not more present; Ashin’s access to new and different musical resources to add to his palette make this album stand out from what he has done in the past, with mostly positive results.
The first track is a reprise of “On and On” from his 2013 release, Anxiety. It definitely sets the tone for what’s to come in the album. Ashin’s voice sounds particularly raw and exposed here, and he’s backed up by a small jazz ensemble. An otherwise organic style of production occasionally is interrupted by various kinds of modulations and processing and the improvising musicians in the background provide beautiful arpeggiations and dynamic shifts, responding to Ashin’s voice and inflection and overall making this track all the more powerful. Thematically the album deals with how we live life so openly in the digital age, and consequently many of these tracks sonically are very open, ethereal, and feature slick production.
One of the things defining Age of Transparency is the finesse audible in every instrumental. I’ve always been able to appreciate how Autre Ne Veut’s instrumentals are able to evolve and mutate in unconventional ways. Ashin is extroverted as a vocalist and is often complemented by the huge, shining synth pads and compressed drums reminiscent of more conventional synth pop. It’s pleasantly surprising how well acoustic instruments like the double bass and an actual choir are arranged alongside those elements. Samples of chopped up vocals and even stadium rock-esque guitars also contribute to the electroacoustic concoction that this album presents to us, and the pristine-sounding production from names like Joel Ford and Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never, Ford and Lopatin) takes a dominant role in defining this album’s sound.
Early in the album, “Cold Winds” is a great track, and it features huge dynamic shifts between the enormous vocal modulation that it opens up with and more subdued choral lines and hi-hats in the verse. One of the highlights of this album for me was the title track, “Age of Transparency”. The arrangement of this song is absolutely gorgeous; it features both live and electronic percussion, reverb-laden atonal saxophone playing, enormous choral lines, and Ashin’s voice delivering powerful and catchy melodies. “Panic Room” is another standout, featuring a wave of synths, quivering percussion, some insane pitch bending in the chorus, and of course, Ashin’s impossible range.
To some, Ashin’s voice can be quite divisive. His already bombastic delivery, especially evident in tracks featuring blistering falsetto like “Switch Hitter” and album closer “Get Out” is much more raw and gritty than his vocals on Anxiety. At times it can feel excessive, but ultimately the grandeur is part of what makes his sound unique and his chops as a vocalists are something to be admired, especially considering how well he is able to exercise that vocal power in the context of a composer.
Compositionally is where this album can occasionally falter. While Ashin’s ability to create lush instrumental textures and match them to his voice is phenomenal, Some developments, for example the track “Get Out” towards the end feels like he is trying to stretch a composition to uncomfortable or awkward ends. “Over Now” introduces a wall of electronic white noise that feels like it was intended to be captivating and beautiful a la My Bloody Valentine or Astrobrite but ultimately fails. Ashin’s very experimental nature as an arranger is what makes his best songs fantastic, but not all his compositions work this way and at times it can work against him in this sense.
Part of the appeal of Autre Ne Veut as an artist has always been how showy, grand and extroverted his compositions and voice are. The levels of finesse and perfection in how Ashin executes extremely volatile structural ideas, sonic textures and combinations (his own voice, for example) are to be lauded. In someone else’s hands, it would almost definitely sound corny or ridiculous. While at times the volatility wins over and he sounds like he is overreaching, Ashin’s willingness to experiment with and stretch the conventions of pop music is what make Autre Ne Veut such an amazing project.