The more Arca consolidates his sound, the more he reveals how much more space he has left to explore.
Arca’s third LP nakedly displays a technique that producer Alejandro Ghersi has honed through a series of high-profile collaborations like FKA twigs and Björk. His work on the latter’s Vulnicura was an ideal meeting of minds between a legend and a rising star, one that furthered the Icelandic pop genius’s constant forward vision while lending the Venezuelan musician a first-hand glimpse at shaping impersonal white noise into multivalent expressions of emotion. A self-titled album suggests either a summary or a deep dive, and in many respects, Arca is both.
The album consists of Arca’s trademark spacious, dissonant noise with a new wrinkle of the artist’s voice, soaring but tremulous. Coated in the wash of his skittering sheets of hissing beeps, Ghersi’s vocals are bracingly vulnerable. Opener “Piel” establishes the contrast out of the gate, with a sound that crosses church choral with ear-ringing tinnitus, all as Arca gently, airily sings. Gradually, legato synths mimic soft string glissandi with twinkling bells and distant roars of ambient clusters. As with so much of Arca’s output to date, it is deceptively simple, using its vast sonic field to isolate and call attention to surprising number of textures. It’s maximalism rendered minimally, a great, towering work of art-pop that you can only hear blared from speakers across a lake. The composition is striking but it is that voice that truly binds all the elements, a cold splash amid the blissed-out sound that introduces a pleading quality that permeates the record.
Ghersi’s vocals provide a constant in an album that otherwise varies considerably. “Anoche” deepens the opening track’s sense of melancholy with pitch-shifted sonar pings pulsating tumescently around a quaint ballad, while “Saunter” rolls out with the digital sound of insects crawling through trash before echoing, brittle chords played with diseased jauntiness come off like Burial scoring a carnival. On top of this, Arca sings with operatic abandon, his voice full even as the fragmented music breaks up his tenor howl. “Reverie” bends both voice and synthesizer up and down in lurching, opiated slurs to set up the sudden, caterwauling intrusion of clanging, metallic percussion. Eventually, the track spirals into demented dance music, thrilling but constantly warping as the kick-the-can beats swallow Arca’s increasingly faint howl.
Elsewhere, the producer’s bold chops continue to flourish. “Coraje” is a tender ballad driven by breathy, moaning bursts of vocals with a few elegant strands of beatless tones that have the unguarded, untamed feel of a child idly twinkling a few keys at a time on a piano. It’s vaguely repetitive but just variable enough to suggest playing around. “Fugaces” slashes its own vocal line to shreds with gales of pure noise, the sound of standing in a train station as locomotives blare horns and grind away in a representation of the title’s meaning of “fleeting.” Most immediately exciting is “Desafío,” which crafts stabs of strings into echolocating calls that swell into maudlin but affirming pop not unlike that of ANOHNI.
Despite the freewheeling nature of the arrangements, Arca does impart some form of developmental narrative. The early, choral songs feel like an impressionistic depiction of a youth in church, that time in which the first symbols of authority exert themselves. The simultaneously searching, curious and scared vibe of these early tracks peaks with the voiceless scream of “Castration,” which builds the budding sexual anxiety into jagged, rusty edges of formless spikes and bleats. The bottoming-out contrasts with “Whip,” a brief interlude of cracking sounds that, with much of the final act of the album, alludes to the actualization of sexual identity. If “Whip” comes off as a hyperbolic, even parodic distillation of gay iconography, despite its violent aural imagery it does not mark a descent into hell but an emergence from it. There is still pain in these tracks, and pain of a more mundane sort in the failing relationships embodied in “Fugaces” or the pleas of “Miel.” Nonetheless, there is as much hope as sorrow in this album, and the more Arca consolidates his sound, the more he reveals how much more space he has left to explore.