Sayan Ghosh: ‘Artaud’ is ever-revealing

Sunday, September 22, 2019 - 5:59pm

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Luis Alberto Spinetta / Wikimedia Commons

As under-recognized as he is outside of his home country, Luis Alberto Spinetta is considered one of Argentina’s greatest ever musicians. Similar to Victor Jara in neighboring Chile, his work played a stark contrast against the authoritarian junta government of Juan Carlos Onganía, heavily influenced musically by jazz and pscychedelia and lyrically from poets and philosophers from Nietzche to French playwright Antonin Artaud, whose name is used as the title of one of Spinetta’s best albums, Artaud.

Pescado Rabioso itself was a short-lived project of Spinetta’s conception from 1971 to 1973, but for all intents and purposes, Artaud is a solo Spinetta project. Listening to Spinetta’s works, one can see the direct influences from the musical movements burgeoning in the Anglophone world at the time. Still, they feel much more ahead of their time. Echoes of Radiohead can be heard from decades before the English group even started recording. 

“Cementerio Club,” an early standout, is a slow ballad with nothing especially musically interesting happening except a few neat licks here and there. Spinetta’s vocals, while slightly nasal and high-pitched, are nonetheless soothing and are a conduit for the lyrics which give Spinetta the reputation as a poet in addition to just a singer-songwriter. He sings to a lover, “Qué solo y triste voya estar en este cementerio / Qué calor hará sin vos en verano,” (“How lonely and sad I’ll be in this graveyard / How scorching the summer will be without you”) using the idea of death introduced in the first lines in which he sings, “Justo que pensaba en vos, nina, caí muerto” (“Baby when you entered my mind, I died”).

“Bajan” is another track where Spinetta flexes his lyrical gifts. His vocals are never really measured, tending to meander around with a flair for melodrama, and this is put to great effect in the powerful choruses, in which he sings, “Nena, nena, qué bien te ves / Cuando en tus ojos no importa si las horas / Bajan, el día se sienta a morir / Bajan, la noche se nubla sin fin / Y además vos sos el Sol / Despacio, también podés ser la luna,” (“Girl you look so beautiful / When your eyes don’t care if the hours / go down and the day awaits its death / and the night is endlessly cloudy / And either way, you’re the sun / And you can slowly become the moon”).

Artaud himself was a figure lightly associated with the surrealist movement in the early 20th century, famous for conceptualizing the “theater of cruelty,” where “cruelty” refers to the action of shocking the audience through more than just the words of the characters and the plot of the play, but also with gesture, lighting and sound. It is interesting, however, that Spinetta seems to reject the unfettered anarchism of his album’s namesake in many ways, except for the album’s masterpiece “A Starosta, el Idiota.” Over a powerful yet fragmented piano, Spinetta croons, “Bocas del aire del mar / Beban la sal de esta luz” (“Mouths of sea air / Drink this light’s salt”). In the middle, the concept falls apart and features a cacaphony of sounds, from a sped-up Beatles sample to a woman sobbing, before returning with an exotic, distorted guitar and a hopeful “No llores más ya no tengas frío / No creas que ya no hay mas tinieblas / Tan solo debes comprenderla / Es como la luz en primavera” (“Don’t cry anymore, don’t be cold anymore / Don’t think there’s any more darkness / You just have to understand it / It’s like light in spring”).

Artaud is an album that reveals more and more after each listen. Even for non-Spanish speakers, the musical richness and complexity is readily apparent, and the way it is mixed, it is also rather intimate and comforting. Even if none of that sounds interesting as well, it might be worth just trying to collect one of the coolest looking vinyls there is out there.