The more Alejandro Ghersi gives of himself, the larger his music as Arca grows. His latest feels both intimate and expansive, a connection between his melodic past and a chaotic future.
This album began long before Alejandro Ghersi became Arca. In the nascent stages of his career, Ghersi made dreamy synth pop songs as a teenager in Venezuela under the name Nuuro. These love sketches, sung in Spanish and English, showcased an upbeat singing voice and brightly colored electronic landscapes redolent of Postal Service or Passion Pit. What he did as Nuuro and what he now does as Arca couldn’t seem any more different. Arca’s sound is one of chaos and contortions, further defined by the unsettling visuals of morphing bodies suspended in space he made with longtime collaborator Jesse Kanda. But when Ghersi debuted his newfound (or perhaps rediscovered) singing voice on Arca, it felt like a wormhole opened up—one that connected his prehistoric past to his visions of the distant future.
“Piel,” the first song Arca released from this album, felt shockingly new. He hums at first, intimating the cadence of a bedtime lullaby, easing a listener into the song. Then, seconds later, he sings towards the heavens, and acidic drips of distortion, bass, and chorus rumble in the background. The melody feels worn and romantic, and his voice slinks along to the beat like an old prayer. Finally, the music dissolves into a puddle of oozing beats and jumbled clanks. When you listen to “Piel,” there is no question you’re hearing an Arca song. And when you go searching for the answer to why that is, you keep digging into Ghersi’s timeline, trying to figure out how he could make something that feels so ancient and so otherworldly.
The 13-songs on Arca don’t represent an about-face for Ghersi, or even a reinvention. Rather, it imagines what would happen if he intermingled the music of his past (the pop songs he made, the Schumann and Mendelssohn he studied) with the radical noise and boundary-shattering pop he’s invented as Arca. Booming organs, mournful pianos, and classical instrumentation share space with a kaleidoscope of outré production. This juxtaposition is made even more clear by his voice, which proudly wears all of its imperfections: every cough, wheeze, and difficult breath is captured. That he’s using his voice at all is, for Ghersi, an act of time-travelling in itself. He says that his relationship with his voice on this album felt like “communing with [his] teenage self again.” He combines paradoxes and contradictions to create an experience that doesn’t feel like it’s part of our space-time continuum, but a separate universe he’s making on the fly.
The discoveries Ghersi makes on Arca allow him to write his most relaxed and intimate songs. His work is still mysterious, but not as opaque—it doesn’t keep you at an arm’s length, instead he offers up his pleasures more readily. Take for example the three-song sequence of “Coraje,” “Whip,” and “Desafío.” “Coraje,” is the album’s simplest song—Ghersi’s take on the piano ballad. The keys plink away as Ghersi searches for notes high and low. He even sounds like he’s crying at one point—moaning and whispering—his delivery becoming more watery as he reaches the finale. Seconds later, on “Whip,” he rips you from this emotional moment with a minute-and-a-half long track that’s mostly just the sound of a bullwhip rapidly moving back and forth. Then, on “Desafío,” he channels all the pop music he’s written for Kanye, FKA twigs, Björk, Kelela, and others into a single point. It’s warm, impossibly catchy, but densely detailed. It begins with the sound of an air raid siren, but then it cracks open, and Arca unleashes this joyous synth melody and airy drums. He sounds at ease, dancing between notes as he talks about the touch of lover feeling like the kiss of death (“Tócame de primera vez/Mátame una y
Throughout Arca, Ghersi strings together moments like these, finding beauty in contrast. And it’s not just because there is something dazzling about how different each moment feels from one to the next. There’s something legible, more direct about all of this. Hearing him castigate a lover on “Fugaces” (“¿Por qué me mentiste?”—“Why did you lie to me?”) or just saying something as simple as “I miss you” on “Anoche,” is something Ghersi hasn’t done before. Some of these songs sound like they were delivered as if he was right there in the room with you. Even if he claims many of the lyrics were improvised, there is still a strong intention—he’s reaching out and offering his hand. This close-quarters proximity gives these songs a pulse, a warm human heartbeat that seemed buried in all the noise of his older songs.
Ghersi recently revealed that he chose the name Arca because it was an old Spanish word for a “ceremonial container.” Arcas are “empty spaces” that can be filled with meaning. He has never been one to believe in anything as concrete as identity or category, but there is a sense on Arca that he’s looking back at what he’s done in order to reach something else altogether—he’s filling up his box with all the best possible versions of himself: past, present, and future. It’s all for the sake of imagining a world better than the here and now.