Label: Mexican Summer/Software
The fact is simple: There is no better R&B album to come out this year than Autre Ne Veut's Anxiety. There probably won't be.
Of course, 2013's so far been a year when The-Dream's output sounded less like that of R&B's Midas and more like a cheesy porn addict calling in old favors from Jay-Z (who responded half-heartedly.) Or a year when one of the genre's most important new stars makes his biggest noise by drop-kicking an audience member on television. But that's not why Anxiety stands out. Even if R&B were having a stellar year, it'd be hard-pressed to compete with Autre Ne Veut, or the man otherwise known as Arthur Ashin. Yes, he's a white guy, and yes, he lives in Brooklyn. And as "indie" music continues to trends more and more towards R&B, fulfilling the prophetic critique that it spent too long being too white for its own good, so grows the number of funk-faking motherfuckers attempting to cut their product with something more... feeling. This, though? This is different.
Album opener "Play By Play" is as plain and obvious a love song about the desperation in breaking past the "friend zone" as has ever been recorded. But it's also a song that—after the dense tin-notes and airy, zooming synth lines that promise some sort of epic sonic climax, an ecstasy-high, rolling-balls stadium-status finishing move that will knock you on your ass—actually delivers. And it delivers with a chorus that's somehow equal parts hopeful, defeatist, and triumphant. And then delivers on it again. And again. And again, each time, better than the last.
You can not fake that. You can not Dr. Luke that. You can not Max Martin that. You can not just decide to record in a vocal register that, on full blast, could possibly displace listeners' spines. That effect can not be conjured. And this is the first track of the album. Then comes "Counting," a different kind of desperation anthem, with a chorus absolutely slamming around what sounds like a sense of urgency about having sex inside of a collapsing building (but no, it's actually about his grandmother). Against a pulsing, knockaround beat, "Promises" is a for-the-absolute-last-time breakup note that's also an open-and-shut case for Ashin's strong producing instincts: vocal track magic aside, the two-minute song length is a sharp, perfect cut. And then there's the multi-layered gothic boom-bap of "Warning." Or the breathy "Ego Free Sex Free," which closes with a sink-or-swim R&B tactic long abandoned because it's too hard to get right: an actual guitar solo. You know who gets R&B guitar solos right? Prince. Yes: Prince. You don't merit that comparison for short-order work, and we're not the first to make it, either.
But maybe Anxiety is best summed up by the proposition that is "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," with its apologies-to-the-late-great-Whitney title alone suggesting a certain kind of gall, one that's either that of a brilliant prankster or someone who is completely and utterly serious about making important and meaningful R&B in 2013. And if the ticking, post-True Blue-era Madonna pulse of that song doesn't convince just how serious Ashin is on living up to that ideal—let alone that song title—please see your nearest audiologist, and hope they take your insurance. —Foster Kamer