Alejandro Ghersi, known otherwise as Arca, has been an unseen force in the mainstream music industry, collaborating with Kanye West for Yeezus, Bjӧrk for Vulnicura and FKA Twigs for LP1 and EP2. These works, while from different genres and successful in their own rights, share some genes. The man behind them, as an independent performer, has stuck with electronic music, creating some powerful, moody mixtapes like &&&&& and Entrañas. Both feature the grating sonic qualities that are textbook Arca — blasting of steam engines, acute metallic whining, disjointed speech and verbalizations, dissonant tones of some arcane instrument — spliced every way and sewn together to create a haunting, aggressive monster of sound. The tapes yank the listener by the collar and pull them into a trance.
Arca, however, is gentler than its siblings, languishing in the suffering of life. Bathing in agony, instead of unleashing it, requires Ghersi to offer something new. Songs from Arca are even and measured, unlike the skittish and jagged edges of earlier works. A major difference is that Arca’s own vocals are present on the tracks. His voice is airy yet fraught with feeling, and the production reflects that quality. The lyrics themselves are poetic and doleful, lending Ghersi the necessary vocabulary to express himself. He never loses his nerve, though — the album is as charged and billowing as its predecessors.
In pain, Arca makes himself heard on the first track, “Piel” (English: skin), as he repeatedly begs an unknown auditor to “quítame la piel de ayer” (take yesterday’s skin off of me). His pleas reveal an awareness of his sonic metamorphosis, perhaps unwittingly so. “Piel” folds into “Anoche” (last night), where Arca longs for an absent lover through the retelling of maddening dreams. The affliction is so sharp and poignant that Arca is begging for an exit from these turbulent emotions. The idea of managing pain unites these two tracks and roots itself in the experience of Arca. If earlier albums were concerned with encapsulating the rawness and amorphousness of feelings, Arca gives them a form, a semblance of shape.
Vocals, which do provide a foundation for the album, are not present on or central to every track. “Saunter” and “Urchin” recall the sounds of Stretch 2 and Mutant, and keep the album rooted in Ghersi’s background. Three other tracks are exclusively instrumental, providing punctuation for the confrontation of the vocal performances that dominate.
The album reaches a crescendo at “Desafío” (challenge) and “Fugaces” (fleeting), which is perplexing, considering how tame and self-contained they are. Introduced by the energetic and violent “Whip,” the former opens with the muffled blaring of sirens that blend into dreamy, whining waves of synth and serene vocals. The chorus — “Yo te siento por dentro / Mira que reviento por dentro” (I feel you inside / Look at the blow-out inside) — captures the album’s raison d’etre. The ambiguity of “te” (you), perhaps a lover, perhaps the personification of pain, points to the frustration that no one can be punished for the “reviento” (which can mean blow-out, burst or death by exhaustion, any of which seems apt in context). The speaker is resigned to his pain, accepting its presence, yet not submitting. In the plush and pensive “Fugaces,” Arca croons “No, no quiero vivir preso de la melancolía” (no, I don’t want to live prisoner to sadness). The twin tracks admit that pain must not only be felt, but must also be witnessed. Ghersi lays himself bare, shedding fractured beats and seizing melodies to display and release his torment.
While the album does lean into poppier styles and methods, Arca never falls in. At its final breath, Arca keeps itself honest with the instrumental “Child,” which features a jittery ragtime piano reminiscent earlier work — “Sever” and “Else” from Mutant, “Sad B*tch” from Xen. Discovering repackaged sonic motifs is part of what makes Arca so exciting. Ghersi identifies a concept and explores its different facets in a fairly traditional style, but refuses to erase or compromise any of his values in pursuit of this goal. It’s thrilling to hear his signature sound in a more common format, although it should come as no surprise that he’s able to do it successfully. That being said, Arca should be heard after familiarization with earlier works. Seeing the change is part of the charm.