- Jon Kabat-Zinn, a former professor of medicine who's credited with helping to popularise the modern mindfulness movement, once described the practice as finding a way for people to be in relationship with their pain. It's unclear if Alejandro Ghersi, the artist known as Arca, is a student of mindfulness, but in a recent interview, conducted by the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans for i-D, he said: "A very long time ago I was able to see sadness for what it is and feel a privilege from it, instead of pretending it's not there. If there's a sadness running through your life, you must attempt to tune yourself in to a frequency where you harmonise with it because it's never going to leave you."
On Ghersi's third, self-titled album as Arca, he attempts to harmonise with pain in the hope of finding beauty. The Venezuelan-born artist has explored themes of sadness and vulnerability before, but on Arca they're ripped out into the open and held up to bright lights. On the video for "Reverie," Ghersi is a wounded matador on stilts who eventually collapses. On the video for "Anoche," he moves among near-naked bodies as the camera unsettlingly lingers on deep cuts in people's skin. The photo accompanying the record finds Ghersi naked save for a pair of boots and some clay. On the record's cover, shot in extreme close-up, it's possible to see pores on the person's face.
This nakedness is most obviously manifested in the introduction of Ghersi's voice. It features on nine of the 13 tracks, and is this record's biggest talking point. Xen and Mutant, his previous albums, were incredible exercises in futuristic sound design that sometimes felt out of reach. By presenting his voice (something Björk apparently convinced him to do), Ghersi brings us so close we can almost smell his breath. "Quítame la piel de ayer" ("Take yesterday's skin off me"), he gently sings on "Piel," the opener. Ghersi's voice both soars and stoops on the record. He can sound operatic, choral and folksy, but always somehow broken.
The symbiotic relationship between Ghersi's voice and his productions is one of Arca's biggest achievements. This perhaps isn't surprising, given his past work for Björk, FKA twigs, Kelela and Kanye West, but in places here Ghersi manages to completely switch gears while retaining his sonic signature. "Anoche" is a piano-led ballad that's haunted by the slippery sound design he's famous for. On tracks like "Miel" and "Coraje," both beatless and extremely delicate, the alien keys that were all over Xen and Mutant are tender and humanised. "Desafío," one of the album's standout tracks and straightest pop moments, is a swirl of strings and Ghersi's calls.
The clarity of Ghersi's vision allows him to dip into avant garde expressions without breaking the album's stride. It's difficult to think of many contexts in which 80 seconds of brutally modulated whipping sounds ("Whip") would feel natural between a tearful torch song and a stirring pop track. Sitting between two powerful vocal-led numbers, the frantic but focussed "Castration" also highlights the album's coherency and contrasts. It also helps that the album has an earworm quality: melodies immediately drift through your head as the record finishes, which is something of a first for an Arca album.
It's easy to imagine some people being put off by the theatricality of Arca, but it's in these moments, when the album is at its most exaggerated, that Ghersi feels closest to his goal of synthesising opposites. On the album's most upbeat and accessible track, "Desafío," he sings: "átame" / "abúsame" / "penétrame"—"tie me up" / "abuse me" / "penetrate me." Listen to the peppy Venezuelan folk song "Caballo Viejo" by Simón Díaz, singing about how great it is that an old horse can fall in love, and then hear how Ghersi recontextualises two of its lines on the emotionally draining "Reverie." But it's a line from the gorgeous "Anoche" that best encapsulates the fire fuelling the album, Arca's most accomplished work to date. "Anoche yo lloré / De felicidad, qué extraño me sentí"—"Last night I cried / Of happiness, how strange I felt."
07. Sin Rumbo