“On and On (Reprise)” which opens Age of Transparency, the third album from New York-based artist Arthur Ashin’s Autre Ne Veut project is one of the biggest musical fake-outs you’re every likely to hear. It gathers together free-flowing jazz improvisation, electronic manipulation of pitch and repetition, and Yoko Ono-style vocal experiments. Factor in that it’s a reprise of a song released as a free download in 2013, and “On and On (Reprise)” makes for a rather slippery way to start the record.
When the skittering hi-hats, thumping drums and glittering keys of “Panic Room,” come in, it will be familiar territory for fans of Autre Ne Veut’s distinctive take on R&B music. “Panic Room” is immediately a stand-out, with backing vocalists assisting Ashin on the chorus and some brilliant gospel ad-libs near the end. The next track “Cold Winds” follows in a similar vein, with some hard-edged guitar sounds providing dramatic flair.
Age of Transparency had an unusual genesis; Ashin recorded original music with jazz combo The Hazelrigg Brothers in a New York loft, and then took those recordings and stretched and manipulated them into the basis for this record. Autre Ne Veut has always ostensibly been an R&B project, but there is a grittiness and unpredictability to Ashin’s voice that can either be grating or thrilling and falls in harsh opposition to the smooth and sultry popular definition of R&B.
On his previous record Anxiety (the first part of the intended trilogy continued with this record) his voice tended to become grating, as if it were battling with the musical backdrops that it was placed alongside. On Age of Transparency, there is an added looseness to the proceedings that is a much better fit for his voice and performance style. Here, he is cast as a singer more in the jazz mould – in a way reminiscent sometimes of Erykah Badu – and the results are far more pleasing.
At its best, Age of Transparency sounds lush and high-tech – a kind of futuristic take on soul. When tracks don’t really work, like the aforementioned first track, the strained, plodding “Switch Hitter,” or the malfunctioning sonic tricks of “Over Now,” they sound needlessly cluttered, rather than refined. You get the sense that sometimes Ashin lets his affinity for embellishment and sonic depth get away from him.
When it does work, it’s astounding. The title track combines gorgeous chamber jazz with the trademark Autre Ne Veut sound to make something that is not only sonically fascinating, but emotionally involving, and heartfelt closer "Get Out" is as big and moving as prime era Prince. His lyrics tend toward vagueness, but they offer up effective imagery of connection and disconnection. First single “World War, Pt. 2” and its stunning and creepy video evoke a kind of post-human symbiosis between people, offering a timely exploration of the way technology has affected how we connect.
Age of Transparency is thematically stronger than anything Autre Ne Veut has released before, and its lyrical themes are smartly tied into the contrasts and contradictions of its composition. Overall, though, it stumbles a few times in delivering its message. It can occasionally come across as ham-fisted or trite. Arthur Ashin should be applauded for taking the risks he does here. Even if it’s not perfect, you won’t hear a record like this anywhere else.
Age of Transparency is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats.