Arca deserves to be used as a control for synesthesia experiments. Alejandro Ghersi’s productions are a Beksiński painting dashed with warmth and light, befitting the contortions and bizarre shapes pulled by the figures on his album artwork and music videos. Xen and Mutant sounded like transmissions from an alternate dimension that wanted you to put the Lovecraft down and accept the monster as a loving, empathetic character. The questioning of identity and cultivation of self-love through acceptance of pain have always been part of his work, but on his new self-titled album Ghersi achieves a breakthrough that leaves the realm of the grotesque altogether.
Ghersi was encouraged by Björk to begin singing on his tracks, and the results are nothing short of stunning. In an interview he spoke of learning to “harmonise” with his pain instead of actively trying to squash it, and his performance on Arca bravely confronts the difficulties of such a move head-on without drowning it in new-agey claptrap. Opener ‘Piel’ sings of a desire to remove “yesterday’s skin”, retaining his trademark grotesquerie as he prepares for his close-up. As a lyricist, Ghersi is interested in giving the most intimate, uncomfortable feelings the dramatic scope of an opera. ‘Anoche’ tells the story of having a dream of dying simultaneously with a loved one, and rather than romanticise the grim fatalism a la Morrissey, he instead celebrates the emotional aftermath, crying “out of happiness, how strange it made me feel”. In Arca’s world, to feel at all is a privilege, even when it delves into the weird.
Fans of Arca’s previous impeccable sound design work need not be worried, as he is still peerless when it comes to creating satisfying sonic shapes – ‘Castration’ is a baroque dance tune moulded to fit a River Styx boat cruise, and ‘Reverie’ has the clatter of a washing machine with a brick thrown inside, paired beautifully with a nod to a Venezualan folk song about the potential of renewed love, with the closing line “Ámame otra vez / Si te atreves” (“Love me once again / If you dare”), doubling as both an acknowledgment of the everlasting pull of self-loathing and a defiant acceptance of those same scars, unwilling to let it get in the way of happiness.
Arca has also proved himself to be adept at creating an earworm – ‘Desafío’ is hard to remove from the memory, primed to be the album’s biggest crossover hit, with strings and uplifting choral calls uplifting the gory and lustful lyrics. Anyone who struggled to connect with Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens is more than ready to envelop themselves in Arca’s brutal and bewitching world.
Though it’s his third album and not a huge step away from his stock-in-trade, Arca has the drama and captivation of a tulip rising through the debris of a warzone. I’m ready to recommend it without reservation to anyone who admired Xen and Mutant but found them distant, and to those who loved the emotional devastation of Björk’s Vulnicura and is curious to see the style applied to emotions that are more everyday for those struggling with anxiety. It’s the work of an already outstanding artist at the top of his game, and the most breathtaking artistic achievement of the young year so far.