Anxiety – the second Autre Ne Veut album, following 2010’s self-titled debut – is a lush record, sometimes to the point of textural overload. It’s audibly the work of a producer who’s sweated blood over every single bar. Regardless of the album’s actual budget, it sounds like a million dollars. Everything here seems fussed over, from the jackhammer rhythms and vocal pitch shifts on Promises, to the judiciously-employed guitar shredding on Warning.
Ashin puts as much effort into his vocals as he does his music. It comes as no surprise to learn that he trained as a classical singer in high school: Ashin’s technical competence means he’s able to throw himself completely into his vocals across the whole of Anxiety.
The resulting histrionics recall the most celebrated slow jam maestros, from R Kelly to Miguel. Unlike those artists, however, Ashin’s vocal gymnastics frequently sound desperate rather than libidinous, especially when pleading repeatedly, “Don’t ever leave me alone” on Play By Play, or “Everything you say is breaking up / This is not a time for this to stop” (Counting). Not for nothing is the album called Anxiety.
Autre Ne Veut’s music is, therefore, a pretty heady brew. But when it works, it works like a dream. Opener and recent single Play By Play is among the year’s best so far. It begins with Ashin squealing “I said, baaaay-bee!” as if in the throes of erotic pleasure and doesn’t let up from there on in: the whole song feels like one long climax stretched over five minutes. When some brilliantly cheesy synths arrive at the end, it feels like Ashin is gilding the lily in the best way possible.
The second track, Counting, is almost as good. It somehow uses disparate elements such as saxophone squawks, atonal guitars and whistling to service a simple, memorable chorus. This opening brace proves comprehensively that, when Ashin is able to tether his vocal histrionics to a sturdy tune, his music is unstoppable.
Unfortunately Anxiety’s middle stretch suffers from a lack of memorable hooks. By the time one reaches penultimate track I Wanna Dance With Somebody, it’s dispiriting to learn that it isn’t a Whitney Houston cover, but is instead another overwrought ballad in a long row of overwrought ballads. Fortunately, the album ends on a sweet and simple note, in the form of World War’s delightfully saccharine coda.
Given that there’s not a single second on Anxiety that sounds lazy or tossed-off, it seems harsh to criticise the album for being overcooked. But, while Ashin is clearly a major talent, he just needs to dial it down from time to time if he’s to deliver a wholly satisfying record. Anxiety is hard work – in both a good and a bad way.