Critical Voices: Arca, Arca

April 18, 2017

Arca, Venezuelan electronic producer, DJ, and songwriter, opened his recent self-titled project with haunting humming, rich bass, and ethereal ringing. This sound so severely defies expectations that one finds it hard to believe that Arca, who played a critical role in the infamous Kanye West album Yeezus and has been prominent within the IDM movement for a number of years, is at all related to this song. However, Arca’s musical prowess and cultivated background is abundantly clear; his songs, initially seeming unreasonably spare and simplistic, open up to reveal dense, intricate layers that expose themselves anew every time the songs are experienced. The sonic depth of the project is so overwhelming that one feels comfortable listening to the songs on a lower volume than usual to skate on the songs’ most prominent basslines and Arca’s soaring tenor. In between, however, is the true meat of Arca: keep the volume up to delve into the complex, enveloping mids and sub-bass notes that flow throughout the project, making it as much a work of music as an expression of pure emotion.

Arca’s sexuality dominates the thematic content of the album, carrying with it longing, pain, deception, and passion. The recurring lines “Quitame la piel de ayer” (“Take off my skin from yesterday”) signal Arca’s desire to be freed from the need to hide his sexuality, and to cleanse himself of the grime and dirtiness he feels he has accumulated by lying about his identity for so long. Arca delivers his lines with stunning emotion, compelling the listener to dissect and experience his pain with him, but his lyrics verge on being unnecessarily obtuse—an effect which is only substantiated by how inaccessible his music is initially.

Arca sings in Spanish throughout the album, bringing further layers of mystery and exoticism to his already quasi-mystical project. “Anoche” deftly blends Arca’s melancholic vocals with his IDM history, and steadily builds as he narrates his lonely and broken relationship with a lover he has not even met yet. Mechanical and erratic rhythmics step into the second half of the song, providing a surprisingly compelling structure for the song’s bass and thoughtful piano to build from. The haunting delivery of the song’s title, which appears at the beginning of verses throughout the song, is instantly memorable.

Arca truly inspires visceral emotions throughout this project. “Castration” is harrowing, chaotic, and frenetic, layering mechanical contortions over scintillating notes as a piano hammers out a deliberate melody. The effect is fascinating, fomenting panic and urgent nervousness. Arca explores the distance between oneself and one’s desire in “Sin Rumbo” saying “Vengo a adorarte/Pero desde la distancia/Desde la distancia te añoraré” meaning: “I come to adore you/But from a distance/From a distance I will yearn for you.” In the context of the song’s pained humming and dragging vocals, it is truly heartrending. “Desafío” is grandiose and spacious, allowing Arca’s harmonies to float among one another and bounce along the synth instrumentals. The song’s lyrics are searingly grotesque, and match neither the tone of their delivery nor the song as a whole, but create delightful cognitive dissonance in the piece. Arca’s final track, “Child,” provides a soothing end to the album’s 43 minutes after a tense organ-synth standoff.

The album is at times off-putting. “Whip,” which is dominated by tacky whip sound effects, feels unnecessary and out of place, as do the science-fiction-esque cracks and squeals which also play a role on the song. These sounds, which seem inspired by Transformers or Alien, appear at various points on the album, and make the song feel suddenly foreign, negating the empathy Arca can curry with his vocal performance.

Arca’s Arca is a bold step in experimental music, checking all the boxes of emotional connection, thoughtful composition, and innovative delivery that I look for in the genre, while staking out new ground. Social commentary and personal experience meld in unique ways in the album, and Arca is able to inspire profound emotion speaking a language that many of his listeners may not understand. Without knowing the lyrics, the album is haunting, beautiful, passionate, and at times overwhelming. With lyrical context, it is a bold statement of pride and longing in a visceral and emotive package that is truly fascinating. Like most experimental music, Arca is at first pass inaccessible and confusing. Arca, however, rewards multiple patient, curious listens many fold.

Voice’s Choices: “Anoche,” “Sin Rumbo,” “Desafío”

Gustav Honl-Stuenkel
College class of 2020. Culture and music writer and peanut M&M fiend. Minneapolis native.

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