Arthur Ashin laid out something like a mission statement for his musical project Autre Ne Veut on "Emotional," one of his earliest and simplest songs: "I’m emotional / I’m emotional / I’ve got feelings in my heart / that set me apart." It’s raw, direct, and imbued with a sense of psychological exceptionalism, and you could say the same about all of the music he’s released since. Ashin has spent the last half-decade deconstructing interpersonal relationships and internet-age angst. He has a voice like paint thinner, a light touch with corroded keyboard melodies, and a total lack of fear when it comes to intimacy or intensity. In a defining moment, he turned a phrase no less benign than "I just called you up to get that play-by-play" into the core of a Purple Rain-lite, life-or-death epic; I’m sure all of his friends haven’t dared to screen his calls since.
Age of Transparency is his third full-length album, and in many ways it represents a huge step forward for Ashin: its music and themes are more complicated, and he’s never been harder to classify. All of that is admirable, but it hasn’t yielded an album as enjoyable or satisfying to listen to as Ashin’s earlier work. When it comes to his big ideas, it turns out melody makes the best messenger.
Ashin’s been lumped into the broad, porous alt-R&B movement — one that includes everyone from Blood Orange and Toro y Moi to How to Dress Well and James Blake — thanks to timing and vocal style, but he’s always existed on the periphery of that group, and he’s leaving it behind entirely with Age of Transparency. He roomed with Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin in college, and as musicians they share a polyglot strangeness. Age of Transparency is less an R&B record in any respect than a hybrid of atonal jazz, electronic music, and unhinged blue-eyed soul. It was recorded with jazz trio The Hazelrigg Brothers before being deconstructed and rebuilt in Ashin’s Brooklyn home studio, a process that took two years.
These songs melt, evaporate, and eat themselves
The result is a set of songs that are continually melting, evaporating, and eating themselves. "On and On (Reprise)" sounds a lot like the kind of song Lopatin would write, hissing and collapsing as soon as it generates a bit of momentum; the title track opens with two minutes of searching, slippery jazz before Ashin drops a beat and turns it into something more recognizable. The conflict between the analog warmth of each song’s jazz pieces and its rusting, spitting electronics mirrors the conceptual battle Ashin’s trying to render across the album, the one between real honesty and "honesty" that’s been perverted and appropriated by commercial interests. Take it from Ashin himself, quoted in a press release: "For me, [jazz] taps into this comforting and antiquated image of the truth."
Let’s talk about the truth, whatever that means, because it’s demanding a lot of attention on Age of Transparency. Honesty — and its close cousin, authenticity — underpins many of the most interesting musical conversations of the last few months. The accusations of ghostwriting levied at Drake are rooted in authenticity; any review of Lana Del Rey’s work merits a discussion of her "character" and its relationship to the "real" performer lying underneath; Ryan Adams’ interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 incited complex discussions about whether or not Adams’ apparent reverence for her work was honest or put-on.
Ashin's captivated by the feigned intimacy of Beyoncé documentaries
Ashin approaches the concept the same way you might: he struggles to figure out what’s real and what’s fake, spends too much time on the internet where the difference is at its blurriest, finds himself captivated by the feigned intimacy of Beyoncé documentaries. But his thoughtfulness isn’t always conveyed effectively through the music of Age of Transparency, which is a little too cluttered to yield a coherent message. He's at his clearest when he's referencing his own body of work, whether he's giving an interview or consciously linking back to the sound of 2013's Anxiety.
Ashin’s own extreme honesty and vulnerability have ended up trapping him; on Age of Transparency, the lines between his own performed honesty and real feeling are increasingly blurred. "I’ve ended up presenting myself, slash being represented through the media, as a dude who bares it all and really wears their heart on their sleeve," said Ashin in an interview with The Fader. "All these things that initially were natural and felt like expressions of me, then became my own personal tropes that I felt obliged to perform in order to fulfill other people’s expectations of who I am." The album’s best songs dance on that line by reviving Anxiety’s concision and nervous energy (taut singles "Panic Room" and "World War Pt. 2") or take its intensity and scale to insane heights. Closer "Get Out" is a gaudy, gospel-flecked epic that climaxes with wild choral wailing and vocal interplay, and it works: it’s the one time Ashin forces you to consider that his unrestrained, passionate performance can be just as fake as anything else.
There's a gap between the album's theory and its practice
But for all of its contemporary relevance and conceptual validity, there’s one major problem looming over Age of Transparency: on a moment-to-moment level, it’s not as engaging as Anxiety. Ashin’s intelligence and ambition have led him into writing songs that clash, stutter, and stretch to unreasonable lengths. They can’t redeem the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof yowling of "Switch Hitter" or make it easier to glide through the chaotic noise that undermines the otherwise-placid ballad "Over Now." He’ll find a patch of intriguing, enjoyable melody, only to shatter it with wild skronking or harsh electronics. There’s a gap between the album’s fascinating theory and its jolting, disruptive practice.
In some ways, it seems like Ashin is steeling himself for this album’s reception: "With Anxiety, I was trying to be as honest as possible — as with my self-titled. So I think that notion of me trying to do that is the reason I’m thinking of the inevitable failure of that [on Transparency]." This album is the second chapter in what’ll become a trilogy, and it’s obvious Ashin has larger thematic goals. It might sound better in a few years in that intended context, the tumultuous and volatile record leading up to some sort of musical and personal resolution. In the meantime, his failure — a mild one, it should be noted — is musical rather than personal.