Autre Ne Veut (a.k.a. Brooklyn's Arthur Ashin) released his self-titled debut LP during Olde English Spelling Bee's 2010 heyday, and like much of what the label was releasing at the time, the record combined eccentric, outsider charm with near-perfect pop instincts. The record's sonics were an infectiously garbled take on new wave and '80s R&B, but its true beating heart was Ashin's impassioned voice, which, to put it roughly, perfected the art of solo drunken iTunes karaoke. His live show at the time was essentially that, with Ashin wailing his guts out atop album instrumentals played from an iPod. Anxiety, his follow-up LP, puts this formula on overdrive, cracking the boundary between nervous fantasy and full-blown, arena-ready gloss.
"Play By Play" and "Counting," the two singles that start the album, are grandiose in scope, containing hooks that indeed seem designed for singalong—the video for the former, on which a karaoke machine simply displays the lyrics, confirms this. The production is predominantly the fleshed-out step-and-thwack of contemporary R&B, although his tendency to jar still appears, as "Counting" is broken up by quick clips of brass skronk. It's immediately clear that Ashin's already impressive songwriting abilities have progressed exponentially, although his voice has for the most part remained the same.
On Autre Ne Veut, Ashin sometimes felt like a character, prone to cryptic, unsettlingly funny lines like, "Get into my car/Cuz I can tell that you've been drinking tonight." This helped to break up the moments where he wore his heart on his sleeve—for every line like that, there was another disarmingly honest one, about how he has "Feelings in [his] heart/That set [him] apart," or, seemingly sung in self-encouragement, "You can be all those things tonight/You can be all those things forever." Given the bombastic new backdrop, Ashin himself seems more present on Anxiety, in the same way mega pop stars end up embodying their lyrics, no matter who has actually written them.
This owes to the brighter, more upfront production and Ashin's delivery more than any distinct change in lyrical content. His falsetto tends to veer, diva-like, into a kind of hysterical glossolalia, and is only heightened by the chopping and effects that dot, but do not pervade, the record. Alongside certain uncanny pop signifiers (he drops several wisps of "baby" and "your sexy body"), this calls to mind Grimes's approach, particularly on "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," which echoes the bopping, schoolyard style of her biggest singles. At other points, Ashin becomes so exaggeratedly pained that he echoes significantly less trendy styles: the wailing, guitar-led crescendo (and parallel wailing vocal) on "Warning" has shades of "Purple Rain," but it's also not far from a hair-metal whine.
If anything keeps the record on the right side of camp, however, it is that sort of exaggeration: Ashin's exhaustion on "Warning" is palpable. His lyrics may not always be intelligible, but he is undeniably spilling his soul here—perhaps even oversharing. As a result, Anxiety is a draining front-to-back listen; it becomes much more comfortable when one is able to take each track as an individual single. However, there is a reward for making it to the end of Ashin's therapy session. "World War" is every bit as great of a power ballad as "Loveline," which ended Autre Ne Veut, a track composed with an elegant, if defeatist, finality. Nodding to his associates Laurel Halo and Bee Mask, the first half of "World War" moves from glistening ambience to whirring, pulsing, 3D concrète, as Ashin tenderly sings about an impossible "war" of a relationship—"she's a fire sign," he excuses. Coupled with its resolution in a resigned refrain of "no way you're gonna be my baby," which is crucially backed by a female voice, "World War" is the most beautiful, gut-wrenchingly direct track of Ashin's career. It's also the crown jewel of an album unabashed in its directness.