There were the age of punks, the age of hair metal, the age of grunge, the (unfortunate) age of nu metal and emo among others, and all came from a pinpoint-able period of time. They weren’t fleeting genre trends, they still exist now (in fluctuating numbers), but they all had a time when they were the dominant subculture. Come the late noughties till now, music historians might find it a bit difficult to label the current generation’s taste. If JUICE were to play the scholar role here though, we think today is the age of cultural appropriation.
It began with indie rock’s tendency to necromance ‘80s synth pop and it continued with the hashtaggable nonexistent movement that is ‘alternative r’n’b’. Frank Ocean’s mainstream success, The Weeknd’s crossover appeal, and How to Dress Well’s artful approximation of the genre have gotten critics, all of whom otherwise wouldn’t have given r’n’b a notice, clamouring for pull quotes. Thus was formed phrases and genre names that were never meant to be taken as real; ‘Tumblr’n’b’, ‘hipster’n’b’, and the infamous ‘alt r’n’b’ label among others. Enter the formerly anonymous Arthur Ashin, or Autre Ne Veut as he is better known as on stage.
Arthur’s self-titled debut in 2010 was a release he had dubbed ‘failure pop’. Contrary to the negative word used, he was really referencing his appropriation of the music he grew up with – ‘80s and ‘90s r’n’b – vis-à-vis his lack of skills at channelling them, which in turn birthed a fresh sound. Naturally that record was as outré as the genre can get, so much so we were tempted to dub it lofi outré’n’b (jokes! We don’t want that hashtagged too now).
With new record Anxiety, Arthur did a 180 and made an LP that is the opposite of what critics might expect from someone labelled ‘alt r’n’b’ – he sounded and looked his most accessible. Anxiety is filled with big tunes with the sort of emotional oversinging you’d expect from the genre. The beats scaled back to manageable off-kilterness, and the words are expository and concise. These are epic, soulful r’n’b songs we have had not heard of in a while, delivered with no self-awareness. When Arthur sings the line “Don’t leave me alone” (‘Play By Play) and “I’m counting on the idea that you’d stay” (‘Counting) his heart out, you will believe his earnestness.
It’s a spectacular achievement to record loud synth-heavy and falsetto-laden modern r’n’b that doesn’t cave under the pressure of self-parody (see; R. Kelly). Hyper-emotive sentiments seem to be the vocabulary of rock (anything from Passion Pit to Queen), and Arthur has brought that successfully to his playing field. There’s something to his voice that contributed to our claim; his mirror-shattering falsettos, emotive enunciation, and the fact that he’d let his voice crack at times, adding the human factor to soulful synthesised music.
Then there’s the slight dissonance to the record’s digestible production. There’s the almost non sequitur loud clang of what sounded like metal scrapping on metal on ‘Counting’ that adds to the sense of unease. There’s the knife sharp synths that bellow out along with Arthur’s falsetto on ‘Don’t Ever Look Back’, which had a hair metal coda oddly.
Perhaps in channelling pop without the skills to craft it exactly as seen and heard on TV and radio, Arthur made pop pure of expectations; unfiltered and uninhibited. An r’n’b record that bests its contemporaries, How to Dress Well and Inc, without deconstructing the genre? Don’t call it #failurepop.
LISTEN TO: ‘Play By Play’, ‘Counting’, ‘Ego Free Sex Free’, ‘Don’t Ever Look Back’
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL DIG: R. Kelly, Miguel, Frank Ocean, Ne-Yo, German Expressionism
1. PLAY BY PLAY
4. EGO FREE SEX FREE
5. A LIE
7. GONNA DIE
8. DON’T EVER LOOK BACK
9. I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY
10. WORLD WAR