You might not have heard of Alejandro Ghersi, but you’ve likely heard her: the Venezuelan producer is responsible for some of the most inventive, experimental electronic music over the last five years; her ingenuity spread across albums like Björk’s Vulnicura, Frank Ocean’s Endless, FKA Twigs’ LP1 and Kanye West’s Yeezus.
However, with an increasingly impressive track record, Ghersi’s work on her own albums is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves. As a teenager, she began releasing synthpop music (a far cry from her current work) under the name Nuuro, which was discarded at some point during or just after Ghersi’s time at the Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music at NYU. DJ sets like Shayne Oliver’s at GHE20G0TH1K at the turn of the decade were the catalysts, and the New York City club scene was the incubator for an entirely new impulse in her music: darker, more abstract, and more nakedly emotional than anything she’d previously done.
Since taking on the name Arca, Ghersi has amassed a significant catalog of otherworldly, dissonant, totally idiosyncratic club and ambient music over the last six years. 2016’s shifting, unsettling Entrañas EP was my favorite release that year, and it hinted at a possible new direction for Arca with its heavy emphasis on Ghersi’s vocals. Especially its closing track Sin Rumbo, which has one of the most haunting endings of anything I’ve heard—howling falsetto, hollow, wintry synthesizers, the final lines “pero camino/aún camino,” and the crackling and popping of fireworks.
On her brand new self-titled album, Ghersi included another version of Sin Rumbo—tailored to fit into the middle of a track listing rather than the end, it eschews the explosive outro and instead swells darkly into silence. It's a rare downtempo moment on an album that bursts with energy, powered by Ghersi’s passionate vocal delivery in her native Spanish.
The album was preceded by an unusual number of singles and music videos, which both increased anticipation and let some of the air out of the actual release date, since the promotional songs were some of the best on the record.
“Anoche” and “Reverie,” released almost a month ago, were each accompanied by disturbing and polarizing videos. Both videos appeared to be single long shots of Ghersi, dressed in elaborate costume, dancing and singing mournfully on sets replete with death and violent sexual metaphor.
Lyrically, the songs differ in phrasing, but not in tone. “Anoche” struggles with a relationship, the details of which are ambiguous: it might be imaginary, but it causes Ghersi real pain. She uses the phrase “dejaste trizas,” which loosely translates to “you left me in shreds.”
In its lyrics and music, “Reverie” references the classic Venezuelan folk song “Caballo Viejo,” a cheerful but emotional ballad of a horse who seems old and worn-out but is merely suffering from a lack of emotional and romantic excitement. Listen to the two next to each other (it’s easier to hear in Roberto Torres’ version) and “Reverie” could be described as an abstract, lengthened cover of the song from the ‘80s. In Ghersi’s hands, it is an unrestrained eruption of pain and despair. During the last section, she repeats “Amame otra vez/si te atreves” (love me again/if you dare) as her deteriorating voice tumbles over itself.
Taken on individual bases, the weakest songs are those without vocals, like “Castration” and “Urchin,” which is interesting, considering the bulk of the criticism Ghersi received during the lead-up to the album’s release was from fans upset with her switch from sample-heavy abstract glitch house music to avant-garde heavily electronic ballads or whatever—it’s never been as clear to me how useless genre terms are at defining music than with Arca.
If these instrumental songs feel like links or emotional junctures between the heavy sentimentality of the lyrical tracks on the album, it’s my opinion that they’re meant to do so. Whether you like it or not, the Arca responsible for the largely instrumental journeys Xen (2014) and Mutant (2015) is on another route entirely now. Where in her past discography could’ve existed a track like “Desafío,” which is practically a pop song (albeit a pretty unconventional one)?
Ghersi has always had unusual sensibilities about how club music functions and live performance should look, and she has always pushed sexual and gender barriers in her music. The statements on Arca are more direct, more disturbing, and closer to the heart than ever before. On her previous albums, Ghersi held listeners to more demanding standards of sonic taste, now she merely asks them to listen and understand.