Age Of Transparency is said to be the second in a trilogy started by Anxiety. Inspired by the marketing ethos where brands seek to portray themselves as human, flaws and all, the album's lyrics deal with self-presentation, internet addiction, social media and, of course, relationships. Ashin claims it's a less personal album, but Transparency is unmistakably a product of his psyche, exploring familiar themes in his inimitably hard-to-parse stream of yelps and howls.
The album picks up right where we left Ashin, with an extended reprise of 2013's one-off single "On & On." That one had the plasticine sheen of Anxiety, while the reprise is disarmingly spare, signalling the new direction ("World War" also gets a fussier sequel). Ashin's voice is left alone to climb unpredictable scales and veer through odd turns, while bits of the session recordings flicker and burst below. Jazz informs Age Of Transparency in more ways than one—the genre is one of Ashin's earliest musical influences, and you can hear its improvisational nature in his vocals and fractured songwriting. Where Ashin once strung together pop hooks, here his voice acts like an artist violently lashing paint against a blank canvas.
On tracks like "World War Pt. 2" or "Cold Winds," vocal melodies slip in and out of lucidity, pulling you in with a hook and then darting off in another direction. Tracing his jagged lines takes concentration, and it makes Age Of Transparency less approachable than Anxiety. Ashin often seems to sing at you rather than for you, and he rarely lets up. Things snap into place in some moments. "Panic Room" shows Ashin's pop genius in full splendour, while the beautiful title track starts as an ambient wash and develops into one of his most elegant songs—the backbeat, built from a choir and fluid orchestral accompaniment, thrashes and settles with his voice.
Ashin pulls apart and reconstructs his recordings until they no longer sound real, and the arrangements seem to burst and glitch at random. No sound is left untouched, which is Age Of Transparency's most impressive and most impenetrable aspect. It's a new level of inscrutability from an artist whose work already felt dense. The approach is fitting, though: Transparency sounds as obsessive as the person who made it. Ashin has a singular talent, and grows more idiosyncratic as he takes his compositional style to extremes. The result is an album split between brilliant and head-scratching moments, and it's all a lot take in at once. Anxiety dressed up Ashin's neuroses in glossy textures, while Age Of Transparency lets them writhe all over the floor. Like his live show, it's thrilling, confusing and uncomfortable in equal measure.