Autre Ne Veut Age of Transparency

[Downtown; 2015]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: psychoanalysis, exegesis, art
Others: Edward Bernays, Lars Von Trier, Ashley Madison

If 2015 has taught me anything, it’s that dudes are quickly learning to be wary of the internet. There’s Jon Ronson with his reporting about the slippery slopes and chilling effects of public shaming, Jonathan Franzen with his Wikileaks and-online activism-inspired novel, Purity, and now Arthur Ashin with Autre Ne Veut’s new album, Age of Transparency, which according to its PR, is about “the place we’re in now, where truth and transparency are just ways to sell things and honesty is its own kind of performance.” The 50-plus women who’ve come forward this year to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault would probably beg to differ, but that’s neither here nor there, because — if I’m can perform my own brand of honesty here — you probably would need the press release to be aware that this is what the record is ostensibly about. Then again, Ashin uses PR to acknowledge that the album’s theme comes from PR, so maybe this is a case of marketing imitating art, imitating life, imitating marketing, imitating life, imitating… what, some imaginary Pangean state of harmony and authenticity? Can you hold that thought for a second, my phone’s blowing up — wait, what were we talking about again?

None of what I’m saying is meant to insinuate that Age of Transparency is some disingenuous bait and switch-type shit, but the proof of concept is, to me, in the music itself. Lyrically, this new ANV begins where Anxiety left off, with strangulated R&B nomenclature and indecipherable metaphors for the person who, presumably, has spurned Ashin’s affections. So far, so expected. Transparency’s first track opens with vocals isolated and warped, the distortion at least as prominent as the voice itself. “On and On (Reprise)” continues in this vein, with Ashin’s emoting repeatedly interrupted, the artist reduced to playing a glitch’s second fiddle. Once the instrumentation kicks in, jazzy snatches of flutes and upright bass, this competition — between the organic and the inorganic, the planned and the unforeseeable — becomes even further foregrounded. On the one hand, “On and On (Reprise)” offers the most interesting co-option of Van Morrison in a year full of overt homages to him, due largely to the fact that Ashin has purposefully butchered the track, rendering blue-eyed soul into a borderline unpalatable scrapple of 1s and 0s, rubbing our face in both the attempt at authenticity and the impossibility of such a thing.

And it’s not just flutes and glitches: Age of Transparency is filled with a proliferation of unexpected instrumental embellishments. “Cold Winds” is a bright-burning slow jam for its first two minutes, moving through two verses and a chorus before a volley of proto-metal guitars crash the composition. They serve, to me at least, as a reminder that there would be no Thin Lizzy were it not for Van Morrison, just as there wouldn’t be a Prince — whose inimitable shrieking and maximalist proclivities are audaciously imitated on “Get Out” — were it not for Thin Lizzy. It makes sense to me that Ashin would pile eras on top of one another, until his music is stacked so high that it topples itself, like some pop-musical Tower of Babel. This is a rebuke to the accepted and repeated simplifications that we as humans provide ourselves a rebuke to both the science of language and the language of science, which separate the spatial from the temporal, as if the two are not endlessly overlapping. This is anything but mere recreation of some genre that’s only recently come back into style; Ashin wastes no time before forcing his audience to acknowledge the vast difference between old music and new music that sounds old. The past is past and everything’s a pretense, Transparency tells us; let’s at least be honest about that.

But back to the topic on hand. The least interesting songs on Age of Transparency are the tidy, pop-friendly few — “Panic Room” or “Never Wanted,” for example — that sound as if they could’ve been cut from Anxiety’s fabric. Not that either of those songs are weak or unsatisfying in any tangible way, but they are too consistent and uniform in composition to exemplify the album’s themes as well as the unnerving dissonance of “On and On (Reprise)” or my personal favorite “Over Now,” which sounds like “Into the Mystic” as covered by the Blue Screen of Death. And then there’s the title track, which channels Timbaland’s production on Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance in so séance-like a way that the song feels haunted to me, regardless of whether or not the similarity was intended. After all, Deliverance was about reconciling the cultural blackness of rap with the contextual whiteness of Sparxxx and his experiences in the New South; what better reference point could there be for a post-internet R&B album than an album that actively confronted its own irreconcilable dualities? I have to admit that it’s likely Ashin was aiming to evoke “Cry Me a River,” but seeing as how the mega-success of Justin Timberlake’s first album followed the commercial failure of Sparxxx’s second album only further demonstrates the way that all music is rooted in narratives of time and space, whether or not those narratives are understood by the audience.

This is what Transparency means to me: if not a reconciliation of dualities or a bridging of time and space, then at least a reckoning with the existence of them, an acknowledgement that none of us exist beyond the narrative path of time. After all, we are living in an era that provides us barely bridled access to the entire history of humanity, an era in which authenticity is a virtue laurelled above most others, and an era that, despite the unprecedented access to information and technology, continually denies its own place within history. This is a post-Fukuyama paradox, how we have somehow transcended history while continuously falling prey to its whims. Which is why, when Ashin starts playing around in other people’s sandboxes, I find it to be thrillingly conversational, not to mention honest, in a way that similar artists are not. When Dan Bejar claims to be influenced by Van Morrison, it’s safe to assume that he’s fucking with his too-urbane-for-its-own-good fanbase. When Mark Ronson adds Gap Band members to the credits of “Uptown Funk,” you know he’s just scared of turning into the next Robin Thicke. There is no culture without context, and those who refuse to acknowledge the truth of such a statement perpetuate an insidious form of hegemony. But those kinds of dudes only start to care about this kind of dishonesty once they’ve been found out, which, to bring everything full circle, is probably why dudes are so afraid of the practicalities of life post-internet.

Speaking of honesty or the lack thereof, Ashin has nothing to worry about, seeing as how he’s nothing if not forthright about his own shortcomings, and he only really plagiarizes his own work. His shrieking, squealing vocal stylings are a performance, sure, but they’re a performance of insecurity, vulnerability, mania. He’s honest in the way an exorcism is honest: something ain’t right, and someone is trying — and failing — to address that fact. Case in point, the album’s seething center, “Switch Hitter,” reads like a sex boast, but plays like the end of days. “Don’t be scared,” Ashin sings, in reassurance to at least as much as to his lover. If you’ve seen the video for “World War Pt. 2,” then you know it’s possible to transmogrify “Dance (A$$)” into abject horror.

Despite the unease that permeates Age of Transparency, Autre Ne Veut is hardly interested in resisting the march of time and progress. What separates Ashin from a cranky Luddite like Jonathan Franzen is that, rather than push back against change from a position of comfort and privilege, he embraces his own discomfort as an inevitability and, in doing so, makes his peace with the modern world. Ashin and Franzen both hone in on sunlight as a metaphor for transparency, but whereas Franzen uses the metaphor to demonstrate transparency as a good gloss on a bad practice — PR, in other words — Ashin devotes his entire album to the demonstration that metaphors (“world war is not enough”) are flawed approximations of the real. Age of Transparency is heady and dizzying, even more unpleasant than Anxiety at times, but it’s keyed in to the zeitgeist in a way that feels genuine, constructive even. Maybe Ashin would be better served by talking cures than by making another album about his existential ennui, but lucky for us, there’s a third installment on the way. Here’s hoping it’s at least as dissonant and self-directed as this middle installment.

Links: Autre Ne Veut - Downtown

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