Arca Xen

[Mute; 2014]

Styles: reggaeton, acoustic ecology
Others: none

Etymologically, the meaning of the word “organ” that’s now associated with the musical instrument might predate the scientific and anatomical uses, meaning that a once-ubiquitous tool for creating harmonious sounds may have something to do with what we now mean when we use words like “organic.” This is but one Western-specific example of the phenomenon of specifically acoustic obsession with the inside world of the body and the outside world of unconquered nature. Humans are notoriously ocularcentric when it comes to our language, but we still rely on sound in framing one of the biggest and most ambiguous fields of meaning there is. I too roll my eyes when I’m reading about the music of Alejandro Ghersi as Arca and somebody uses the word “organic,” but if you think about it long enough, it might start to make sense.

I admit that overuse of adjectives like that one is an obvious sign of bad music writing, but for me, verbs begin to feel much more banal in describing Arca. I’m resisting the temptation to tell you what this music sounds like it’s doing, because others probably have so many times before. It’s best to take a step back and to say more generally that Ghersi’s music is imbued with the illusion of autonomy and “life.” The drums sound like the incidental sonic consequences of an embodied action, and as was more often the case with last year’s &&&&& mix than with the Stretch EPs, single frequencies or tonal clusters are isolated in order to find the more traditionally musical qualities in the movement and oscillation of naturally recorded sounds. In some ways, Xen is musically unlike anything in Arca’s brief catalog. This is clear to me when what appears to be surface-level drama on “Family Violence” expresses a narrative through gentle channel panning and when a moment of dropped-piano weirdness coalesces into darkness and distortion at the end of “Lonely Thugg.”

My only complaints are that Xen feels too much like an “album” and that it nonetheless achieves greater sonic uniformity than any of Ghersi’s more formally unshackled work. Silence looks good on Ghersi, but only when it serves the purpose of rhythmically punctuating noise (see “Xen” and “Slit Thru”) and never when it bookends tracks, closing in claustrophobically on their space. The more serious problem is dynamics and how fucked trance lead synths and general shrillness recur at a desensitizing consistency. &&&&& worked perfectly because it seemed to contain one world and one logic rather than several, and because it was loud and dramatic only often enough to remain ominous. This is not to say that Xen’s best moments aren’t just as artful and dexterous as those of &&&&&, but it is to suggest that perhaps Ghersi’s ideas are best suited to a more indeterminate and free format.

Stepping back from the record itself for a moment, it’s obvious why Arca’s debut album might seem appropriately timed. Following high-profile collaborations with artists like Kanye West and Björk, Ghersi is an extremely sought-after figure despite his anonymous maneuverings. A recent FADER profile is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Ghersi’s apparently flamboyant demeanor, which is explicitly at odds with his nonexistent media persona and the dark obscurity of his music. Ghersi seems acutely aware of this inconsistency and accentuates it alongside his more general feelings of being at odds with himself. In that profile, he discusses his sexuality, his childhood anxiety, and his androgynous alter ego Xen. Maybe Ghersi chose to do an interview (his first since before Yeezus) because he understands how important it is to listen to this album against the backdrop of a life fractured by sexual imagination.

Xen is exciting to me because, for the first time, I’m given a good sense of Ghersi’s compositional style. “Held Apart,” “Failed,” “Wound,” and “Sisters” (a track with a singular domestic swagger, and a personal favorite) are the first Arca tracks I’ve heard for which overall composition assumes an organizing role above sound design, and the consequence is unexpectedly beautiful. We might have expected Ghersi’s to be an inside world populated by ghosts, monsters, and corpses, but in their place, we come up against a tender vulnerability, here allowed to shine through brighter than ever in all its perfection and awkwardness. Xen is, after all, a story of dysphoria, and the tension between its protagonist and its creator has no obvious resolution. Still, it’s a gracefully self-contained ecology — a sonic environment rich with empty and warm spaces, within which the listener is urged to breathe more easily and share in a queer feeling of belonging.

Links: Arca - Mute

Most Read