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Arca’s self-titled record moves in wrong direction

| Wednesday, April 26, 2017

arcaWEBJoseph Han | The Observer

It’s boring.

That’s how I truly feel about Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi’s solo output as Arca, which, in spite of my own experience, has been widely successful among critics. So I can’t help but think: Am I missing something?

In an attempt to find out, I listened to Arca’s latest, self-titled record, released in early April on XL Recordings. It begins with a feebly hummed, familiar melody. That’s because Ghersi had previously weaved elements of the opening track, “Piel,” on his 2016 mixtape “Entranas.” In fact, quite a few moments on “Arca” seem to have been previewed on that mixtape, including almost the entirety of the record’s centerpiece, “Sin Rumbo.” That kind of move is not unheard of, and it’s not necessarily misguided — but when the new material doesn’t quite match these reprises, one wonders whether this was the right time for a new Arca record.

But is there any right time for a new Arca record? Ghersi has proved his might as a producer for Bjork, FKA twigs (with whom he’s also co-written songs) and even Kanye West. His visceral electronic arrangements intensified the power of Bjork’s mournful vocals on “Vulnicura,” and he has given Tahliah Barnett’s seductive cadence some necessary edge. Therein lies Ghersi’s talent: his knack for mind-bending production that, while informed by industrial music, feels uncannily organic. This unique affect has allowed Ghersi to bring out the best in other musicians.

As a solo musician, however, much of his Arca output lacks direction and grounding. Much of it feels inconsequential and forgettable as a result. Interestingly, this is not true for his mixtapes: “Entranas,” with its aggressive yet sensual production, was fantastic.

But “Entranas” ran for an uninterrupted 25 minutes during which various motifs were weaved in and out; the internal chemistry was effective and positively volatile. Arca’s full-length records, on the other hand, are over 40 minutes long and assembled from discretely split individual tracks. Thus drawn and quartered, Arca’s work feels repetitious.

It’s difficult to place a finger on the record’s flaws because there’s nothing severely flawed about the production. On paper, Arca’s music is original and evocative. Nobody sounds quite like him, especially insofar as he welds blunt and aseptic sonic devices to vocals that stress vulnerability. Arca’s music, like his album art, highlights the grotesqueness of the human body.

But Ghersi is his own greatest limitation. He’s crafted a unique aesthetic, but seldom reforms it on “Arca,” reverting instead to a formula that hides lackluster songwriting under shiny production. The result: there is hardly enough internal variation on the record to keep one’s attention. While “Sin Rumbo” was a haunting vocal outlier on “Entranas,” tracks like the exaggeratedly creepy “Coraje” or the aimless “Fugaces” sap its distinctiveness on “Arca” with forgettable vocal melodies that offer little more than the novelty value of Ghersi’s overwrought vocal delivery. The tracks are listenable, strictly speaking, but the Arca project will not be remembered for its exceptional songwriting.

There are other, more playful tracks on the record where Ghersi demonstrates his knack for crisp and punchy production, like the minute-long “Whip” and the techno-inspired “Castration” – both of which recall the dark and dizzying “Entranas.” But even these tracks are the exception rather than the norm; on the rest of the record Ghersi hardly showcases his greatest skills as a musician.

Aside from its ill-advised move toward greater emphasis on vocals and lyricism, the Arca project undermines itself by consistently opting for needlessly dense, low-resolution atmospheres that don’t highlight Ghersi’s talent for sound design. Instead of shining, the tracks sound oddly muddled. It’s the sound of the record built to fade from memory.

Artist: Arca

Album: “Arca”

Label: XL

Favorite Track: “Castration,” “Sin Rumbo”

If you like: Amnesia Scanner, Oneohtrix Point Never, FKA twigs

Shamrocks: 2.5 out of 5

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