Features I by I 07.04.17

Arca review: Björk’s electronic architect finds his voice with an immaculate collection of grisly love songs

Today, Arca released his third “proper” album – an eerily beautiful collection of cracked love songs that perfectly illustrates his growth over the last five years. Miles Bowe deconstructs an album that wields Björk’s operatic experimentation with ecstatic electronics and sparkling euphoria.

Alejandro Ghersi, better known as Arca, has toned his discography over the course of this decade like one would a muscle, from his UNO breakouts Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, to production work for Björk, FKA twigs and Kanye West, reaching a peak on his incredible last album, 2015’s Mutant. Whether through Jesse Kanda’s violently sexual avatars, avant-garde club nights or soundtracking fashion shows, his music sounds as visceral and eerily pretty as fresh offal. His last release, Entrañas, roughly translates to “guts” and it’s a title so accurate he could have used it for nearly any song or album.

While his previous work has evoked gore and chaos, Arca emerges with every restless idea we’ve heard this decade locking into place. The eponymous title is important, as is Kanda’s beautiful portrait of the artist on the album cover – so close he overwhelms the frame, equal parts alluring and threatening. That role might previously have belonged to one of Kanda’s creatures, but Arca sounds like an unmasking. A long stare from a producer who has, artistically and literally, found his voice.

“I have an interesting relationship with my voice. When I was 14 or 15, I was making pop music and singing over all of it,” he said in a 2015 interview. “I had an unspoken treaty with myself to never lie in my lyrics, so, for a long time, when I wrote love songs, I would use genderless pronouns, like “dear” and “darling” — like some kind of granny!”

In high school, Ghersi caved to the hetero pressures to write about girls, before deciding to pull the plug: No more singing, no more lyrics, no more lies. He “went into a cocoon”, as he puts it. It’s fitting then that Arca opens with ‘Piel’ (‘Skin’), an ecstatic flaying of “yesterday’s skin.” Over looming orchestral drones, he sounds exposed and glaringly vulnerable, but don’t make the mistake of confusing that for weakness.

The first thing we hear is gentle humming. Ghersi’s voice is not perfect, but rather than polish out any blemishes, he works the flaws. His voice cracks, he breathes sharply and his lips smack; at one point you can hear what sounds like someone taking a sip of water. Whereas previous work was filled with electronic cracks and tremors, here he often relies simply on his mouth and lungs. Just as he abandoned avatars for videos exploring and showcasing his own body, Arca revels in physicality and its limitations.

His voice soars with an operatic grandeur on ‘Saunter’, while the raw melismas of ‘Reverie’ shows that Ghersi’s natural voice can be just as elastic as his most slippery synthesizer sound. They shift and adapt to whatever Arca’s complex orchestration throws, from both screeching and soothing violins to brushed percussion to brutal foley effects. ‘Castration’ is a perpetually off-kilter rush thanks to its woozy synths and pummeling beats that uncomfortably resemble fists hitting flesh, while the brief vignette ‘Whip’ dissects the titular weapon, stretching an instantaneous crack to a fragmented 82 seconds. It’s heavier than anything he’s ever made, yet also his most gentle because of its lyrics.

Arca beams with grisly Spanish love songs, and the language’s softer tone lends itself infinitely better to his sinewy vocals than English; sung in the second person, it’s an elegant solution to not using gender pronouns. On the heartrending ‘Anoche’, he mourns an imagined lover: “Last night I loved you / and you left me in pieces.” The track adapts a line from Björk’s ‘I Miss You’ (“I missed you / though I haven’t met you yet”), before offering his own equally moving conclusion: “Last night I smiled / thinking that you were possible.”

It is not just the vocals that display Ghersi’s forward evolution – the composing on the album is the most focused on his career. On ‘Fugaces’, voice and synth strobe dramatically until they become indistinguishable. It becomes an impossibly tense blur with sharp violins tingling around the edges, before suddenly ripping apart into a soaring chorus. It’s the most cathartic track of his career. The following ‘Desafio’ is his prettiest with every nerve-damaged sound in Ghersi’s palette pushed toward sparkling euphoria. It all builds to the delicate closer ‘Child’, an instrumental reminiscent of the work on his debut album Xen, but with far more focus.

The result is Ghersi’s strongest work yet, an album that makes you appreciate everything preceding it more and trust in whatever may follow. Arca is a meticulously sculpted body of work – a perfect flex, immaculately sustained.

Miles Bowe is on Twitter

Read next: Björk’s MoMA exhibition is an emotional journey through her past, present and future



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