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Holy Hell! Bocanada turns 20

Holy Hell! Bocanada turns 20

In the ‘80s, Gustavo Cerati was the most famous man in Argentina not named Maradona.

If there’s any trope that rock adores above all others, outside of escaping hometown boredom and a frankly irresponsible amount of groupies, it’s the front man going solo. Band has dreams of making it big, makes it big, drug fueled fallout, introspection, solo album, profit. It’s so seeped into the cultural consciousness, it’s hard to tell if front men leave their bands out of necessity or a societal obligation. Freddie Mercury, Scott Walker, Morrissey, it was fated they’d all strike out on their own due to personal problems or a craving for something more. Damn shame then that the trope’s finest execution has generally been ignored in the Northern Hemisphere.

In the ‘80s, Gustavo Cerati was the most famous man in Argentina not named Maradona. The decade before, Argentina’s Peronist Spring birthed art and progressive rock that outstripped their northern counterparts. But it came to a screeching halt after the US-backed military coup that spiraled the country into chaos. After the return to democracy, a new flood of bands captivated by the British New Wave took on a more pop oriented mix of old heads like Charly Garcia. Cerati was one of these starry-eyed youngsters, hopeful and buzzing as Argentina stabilized. He met future guitarist Zeta Bosio met in college in Uruguay (don’t tell the Argentines, they get mad). And they allegedly recruited drummer Charly Alberti after he kept pestering Cerati’s sister for a date. When Cerati picked up the phone to tell him to knock it off, the two started talking music, much to the chagrin of his sis.

Alongside synth-rockers Virus, Soda Stereo were quickly catapulted into stardom, and soon eclipsed every other band around them, becoming Argentina’s version of U2. By the mid-80s, each album reached Gold and Platinum with ease. It’s hard to overstate the band’s enormous influence. Outside of Uruguay and Argentina, already teeming with a history of rock, much of Latin America had no time for punk, new wave or amps in general. But Soda Stereo were impossible to avoid thanks to radiant MTV coverage and a series of South American tours that obliterated ticket sales records. By 1990, they were co-headlining with Tears for Fears and had released Canción Animal, a landmark album not just for Argentina, but for anthemic rock period.

Either sensing the band’s impending collapse or simply getting bored, Cerati began playing solo shows after the album’s release. He put out two solo albums while Soda was still working on their final record, but his Bocanada was the complete departure from his rock star past. And what a departure it was. It was as if Bono ditched U2 right after Achtung Baby and made Odelay.

Cerati was more interested in slick trip-hop than rusty funk beats, and the only thing holding Bocanada together is his enviable charisma and glossy production. The album showed an admiration for Bjork, Massive Attack and Tortoise as much as his old back patches of XTC and The Police. That bouncy ideal was certainly helped by Cerati playing goddamn everything. Only sample master Flavius Etcheto and drummer Martín Carrizo were consistent co-conspirators; the rest of it was Cerati’s stream of consciousness. His effortless mixing of dance, rock and electronic even brings to mind hypnagogic pop and chillwave, 10 years before the damn things were invented. It was a sort of blueprint for Damon Albarn’s transformation into Gorillaz’s ringleader.

Of course, it could have been a Metal Machine music debacle. But Cerati was a disciple of the hook. The blissed out lounge of “Beautiful” has a slow blossom of a climax, a relaxed groove and sterling horns joining Cerati’s wistful chorus. It made sense that Air had introduced themselves to the world with Moon Safari the year before, as Bocanada sounded like a rock band covering their atmospheric sexiness.

But if you’re really aiming for seduction, all you need is opener “Tabu,” which the Bond films rejected for being too smooth. The frenetic, glitched drumming soon gives way rubbery bassline and shouting samples you’d expect in a rave track. A trembling guitar joins, but this is ornamentation for Cerati’s extraordinary pipes. His rising, rising, rising falsetto in the chorus lands somewhere in the Himalayas. Considering his supple lower range, the leap to Bucklian heights is unfair. It’s all the melodrama Soda Stereo basked in with a sinister edge.

Traces of dub underpin the stumbling rhythm of “Engana” and the spaced out title track, which sounds like Spiritualized stretched out on codeine rather than LSD. It’s plush and luxurious, practically sweating sex. The clattering discord of “Raize” (with a ghostly pan flue) raised the tension, as did “Verbo Carne,” the album focal point that soundtracked sneaking into a villain’s island lair, complete with a 48-piece orchestra and Cerati’s most tender vocal performance.

Though Bocanada took trappings of extremely ‘90s bands (Jamiroquai, Soul Coughing, Morphine) it extracted their potency without tying the sounds to an era. Only a few years after Soda Stereo’s breakup, plenty in Argentina considered Cerati’s first foray into solo work even better than the songs that had defined an entire country. So northern ignorance of Bocanada isn’t so much sad because Cerati is overlooked, more so that so many rock fans don’t know the man who made the best heel turn record ever.

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