Monday, April 24, 2017

album review: 'arca' by arca

As an artist, I find Arca profoundly frustrating.

I mean, when it comes to experimentation in modern electronic music, you can make a real argument that this Venezuelan producer is pushing into some intense, experimental territory, full of melodic dissonance, off-kilter tunings, atmosphere that is warped and contorted into potent sonic experiences. He's a defiantly unique producer with a distinct sound and style - and yet he's also the sort that frustrates me to no end. See, going back over Xen and Mutant, I keep circling back that despite all of the wild twists and turns, Arca is often at his best when he grounds his experimentation in progressions that add some real foundation. And sure, that might potentially deflect from the raw outpouring of organic feeling and emotion as he describes his music, but you eventually you hearing the patterns, and that sort of semi-improvised style doesn't wow you in the same way.

And thus I had a lot of mixed feelings going into his third album, which is self-titled primarily because, like his early demos, he's choosing to sing on it, reportedly inspired by his friend and collaborator Bjork and her encouragement. Now I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bjork, and her unearthly ability to pull out stunning music, and she clearly sees a ton of potential in Arca. But here's the catch: Arca reportedly chose with only one exception to improvise all of the lyrics on the album... which would probably make sense given his style of melodic composition, but also could reflect a lack of greater refinement - and that concerned me, because thus far Arca had not shown enough to convince me he could carry an album like this on pure, organic, spontaneous talent. That said, he's way too unique to disregard, so how did this self-titled project turn out?

Well, I hate to say it, but I really wish I liked this a lot more, as I'd say this is arguably Arca's least compelling release to date - still perplexing in some of its detail and still unique, but the distinct lustre has definitely faded. And while I can see where some critics are coming from in calling this his 'breakthrough' because he's added vocal arrangements to the compositions, whether their addition was worth the compromises he necessarily had to make as a result is a very different question.

So let's start by talking about those vocals, shall we? Now at first listen you could easily call out the Bjork influence in how he would bend and stretch his voice around the words - it's clear he's more comfortable using his voice as an instrument in his mix than for direct words - but a lot of repeated listens oddly gave me a bit of a Perfume Genius vibe, especially when he pitches his tone a little lower to pick up a bit more operatic swell. And look, I do think these segments on tracks like 'Fugaces' and parts of 'Sin Rumbo' work fairly well, and I actually thought his multi-tracking on 'Desafio' connected pretty effectively, easily the most accessible song that Arca has ever created. But despite the obvious callbacks both in lyrics and style on songs like 'Anoche' and 'Coraje', Arca isn't Mike Hadreas or Bjork - he just doesn't have the presence or intensity as a vocalist, especially in his upper register, to really grip me here. Trembling vulnerability can work, don't get me wrong, but maybe he's not quite situated as close to the front of the mix as he needs to pull me in, or the addition of extra oily layers doesn't flatter him like on 'Reverie', or his skills as a performer aren't quite as refined or are intentionally left unrefined... but it's not really gripping me here, I have to say.

And this becomes an issue when you look at what was given up. Now there is a way of writing free-form lyrics that could have fit with Arca's jittery, glitchy production that slides off key and rhythm enough to disguise the patterns that slip through, and Arca's choice to write entirely in Spanish probably helps the flow even further. But there is actually a fair amount of structure to Arca's writing on this album - verses and choruses and honestly a lot more repetition than I expected for lyrical improvisation. But what this means is that the production necessarily can't be as elastic or free-form as it has been in the past - or more alarmingly skirts the whole idea. Yeah, the hollow distant synth tones and jittery crackling sounds that flit between buzzing and fidgeting are still here, but when Arca chooses to strip back to let the atmosphere hold his voice instead of any of the most defined melodies Arca has ever written, it can make a lot of these pieces feel unfinished, and worse still, lacking the unique element that made Arca so damn compelling in the first place. Furthermore, when you do consider the purely instrumental progressions, you realize that many wouldn't be that out of place on Mutant, except minus the weight and grit that gave that record its moments of intensity, and this goes for songs I otherwise like too. 'Urchin' is a solid track with its rumbling stomp against the piano, and 'Whip' is even better, even if it really is just a chopped up collage of whipcrack samples, but put either song on Mutant and you know they'd pick up more grit and intensity. And yet in the mean time, Arca's tendency to flood in atonal or offkey synth progressions continues to get on my nerves, from the high crooning that opens 'Reverie' to the pianos on 'Anoche' to the squealing noises that sound like a dying cat on 'Castration' that compromise an otherwise solid groove.

But okay, set aside greater experimentation and a little more adherence to formula for the lyrics, so what do we get in that department? Well, to Arca's credit, from what I could translate from Spanish I don't find the writing on this record bad or even bland - but it's also exactly what I would expect from Arca from every interview he's ever given. It's telling that the most common metaphors that run through this record are the shedding of skin, honey and deep, dark abysses, because the biggest underlying themes of this album are extremely sexual in nature. And Arca's approach to sex is explicitly tactile and organic - sticky, sweaty, bodies heaving against each other, skin on skin, the fluid exchange is palpable across every song. And like with Jenny Hval's Blood Bitch, you can occasionally read sex as a metaphor itself on this album, like through the awakening of the possibility of desire on 'Anoche'. But once you manage to get past the shock value - and the fact that there's a strong undercurrent of sadomasochism in the sexual contact, when you decode it Arca is a kinky record - the songs can resonate as a little barebones. He gets dumped and yearns for more even as he must continue forward on 'Sin Rumbo', and then does the dumping himself on 'Coraje'. And the line that stood out the most to me came on the acknowledgement of getting cheated on on 'Fugaces' - 'I don't want to live as a prisoner of melancholia', which I took less of a rejection of sadness and more of depression and numbness. Arca plainly wants us to feel everything, shedding his skin to make the contact all the more vivid, embracing pain and ecstasy alike to the point where they blur together...

And yet for as starkly vivid as Arca wants to make this feel, in comparison to his previous work I'm not getting that same stark contact. Mutant may have been a record of sharp peaks and valleys, but the peaks did resonate as having more of that grit that this record seems to blur away. And that inherently highlights a problem trying to get this 'raw' and trying to pull a sympathetic emotional reaction to his pain - if on some level he's enjoying it, the pure hedonistic urge blunts the purity of the response, and thus further pushes away from the audience. Now that's not saying from pure provocation Arca can't connect, but it doesn't feel as visceral or challenging to really get into territory he hasn't otherwise explored better - and in pure hedonism, the most essential currency is intensity and novelty. As such, for me this is a 6/10 and a recommendation, especially for those enamored more with Arca's artistry, but I'd temper your expectations. This does feel like a different step, possibly in a fascinating direction, but this record is only the start of that transition, and I'll be more interested in where he winds up.

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