Since emerging at the turn of the decade, Arthur Ashin’s output as Autre Ne Veut has had little to do with sonic lucidity or decisively communicated truths. Despite its bare, monochromatic artwork and corresponding title, his third LP,Age Of Transparency, is no different.
Age Of Transparency is the second instalment in a trilogy that began with 2013’s Anxiety, furthering that record’s interrogation of the barriers obstructing interpersonal communication in the contemporary world. At first, Ashin didn’t plan to make three interlinked records, but once Age Of Transparency began to take shape, he realised the overarching theme contained plenty of untapped creative potential.
“When I was making Anxiety,I was still at the stage of being in total wonderment that I’m permitted to make a record, and would never allow myself to actually concretely dream past the specific record that I’m making,” he says. “But as I started writing for and working on Age Of Transparency, there was this subcategory of songs I was writing that didn’t really feel appropriate to the record, but felt like they were still dealing with the same kind of umbrella of topographical high-level concepts.”
As with its predecessor, a tremendous amount of work went into Age Of Transparency. An unflinchingly ambitious performer, Ashin recorded with a small jazz ensemble before adding his emotionally exhaustive vocals and embarking on an extensive period of studio tinkering. The album was by no means easy to make, but Ashin has discovered a way to optimise the expressive potential.
“I used to just write and produce at the same time and that turned out to not be as productive – the production value and the songwriting both ended up getting stymied at different moments,” he says. “I’ve really compartmentalised my writing process from the production process of a record. So the records are really designed around almost a singer-songwriter paradigm in terms of how they flow and the thematics of them. But then with this record there ended up being a huge amount of time and energy put into the production of it, well after the songs were written, to really focus on that.”
Much like Anxiety, Age Of Transparency reveals Ashin’s flair for immediately appealing pop songs – the likes of ‘Panic Room’, ‘Switch Hitter’ and ‘World War Pt. 2’ pair sing-along melodies with patent sensuality. However, throughout the record, subversive impulses push the compositions beyond the realm of conventional accessibility. For Ashin, studio production is just as expressively effective as songwriting.
“I’m the happiest when I get a chorus to feel big in the way I want it to feel big, or whatever,” he says. “Those are the moments that dopamine and serotonin start shooting off in my brain and I just bliss out.
“I think a lot of the struggle for me is that I’m not naturally very gifted at music. So I end up working really hard to get to a place that somebody else who might be more naturally gifted could just open up and [get to]. But with my struggles come interesting accidents that I end up liking more than something I would’ve crafted with intention. That has its own set of rewards, like, ‘Oh wow, the world’s just gifted me this transition because I hit the wrong note when I was trying to play the bassline on the synth.’ It’s something that I would never write if I were intentionally trying to do it, but because I end up failing to do it correctly, I end up with these beautiful accidents.”
Considering how staying open to accidents is likely to uncover uniquely evocative ideas, possessing such an attitude is clearly an asset. “It’s very much learning ways to utilise the studio to the best of my abilities,” Ashin says. “The studio really is my primary instrument, because – even though it’s not a guitar or a bass or a piano – it’s the only thing I’m moving in the direction of mastery towards. “It’s something that five years ago I didn’t think I would ever get to, which is awesome.”
The New York artist’s increased studio inventiveness is epitomised by the new album’s opening track, ‘On And On (Reprise)’. What starts off as a beautiful jazz ballad quickly begins to mutate; the acoustic foundations are subjected to cumulative digital manipulation, causing it to become emotionally jarring at certain points and grossly humorous at others. Towards the end, the transition into the digital world becomes complete, and Ashin’s intense, purging vocal performance begets a major feeling of catharsis.
“To me it’s one of the most beautiful songs on the record,” he says. “It nods at Meredith Monk in moments and nods at Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and stuff in moments, and nods at Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in moments. And it kind of introduces the character [of the album]. It’s like, ‘Here’s that thing where I’m going to be doing speed- and pitch-warping stuff, and that’s going to happen all across the record, but here’s where that’s really clear that it’s happening.’ Or, ‘Here’s where I’m going to transition the listener from an organic space and then break that organic material down and then have it reform as this very digital, noisy synth part.’
“For the listener, I wanted to introduce them to the notion they’re going to be dragged around by their hair.”