Arca’s new album Mutant contains many of the same ingredients as other club-born releases of the past few years: ominous sirens, scorched noise, non-verbal vocal snippets, loaded strings and piano. However, he applies them with a fearlessness that is today so often absent from a realm that is supposed to be about raw expression. Sounds appear to be pushed beyond their limits, crumbling to dust in the hands of Alejandro Ghersi, the Venezuela-born, London-based artist who records as Arca. But for all its intensity, the landscape of Mutant is more inviting than that of his 2014 debut album Xen, which was a taut and much more serious rendering of Ghersi’s inner world. Where Xen had the feeling of a shattered mirror, Mutant is on a mission to rearrange the shards into an intriguing mosaic; it glints and winks at the listener, begging them come hither.
It’s not a record that Ghersi needed to make. Over the past two years, the 25-year-old has racked up production, production consultant, and co-producer credits for FKA Twigs, Kanye West, and Björk respectively. His own artistic statements—including 2012’s Stretch 1, 2013’s &&&&&, and 2014’s Xen—have earned him a cult following, enabling him to create sold-out, immersive live experiences with his long-time visual collaborator Jesse Kanda. A dozen other artists, finding themselves in a similarly blessed position, might take the opportunity to retreat from the world for a while—but not Ghersi. We know he works quickly and purposefully, and that obsessive quality is evident in more than just Mutant’s 20-strong tracklist. There is a level of detail to his sonic sculpting that recalls the extravagant fantasy of a Guillermo del Toro movie.
Across the course of the record, he stretches and re-stretches string, piano, and vocal parts, as if seeing how many different permutations he can come up with. Emotion is dealt a similar hand: sounds and their psychological effect are pulled in so many directions that that they split, allowing for a number of delightful new pairings to bubble up. On opener "Alive,” for example, violent distortion is recast as exultant, while on “Snakes,” jittery synths are charged with a sexual, rather than an anxious, tension.
A lot of popular music—be it chart releases, big-budget movie scores, or focus-grouped ad jingles—has a traditionally rigid view on which timbre evokes what emotion. Mutant screws with that system royally, and that’s what makes it the Arca record that we needed Ghersi to make. Life needs mutation in order to evolve, society needs mutation in order to shunt the status quo, and music needs mutation to save us from getting stuck in a single groove. As any true artist knows, the role of art is to help point us in new directions. The way in which Mutant provides that service is often violent—like the synth stabs that sound like actual knives plunging into flesh on “Sinner”—but there is also plenty of reprieve. On “Front Load,” the song that strays the closest to a traditional pop production, swooning strings dance in unexpected harmonic union with playful burps and gurgles. At each turn, the tracks gracefully avoid unfolding in the direction that convention dictates, which breeds alertness in the listener; you can almost feel your synapses flexing. Ultimately, Mutant is coloring outside the lines on a Michelangelo level, a beautiful reminder that music is often best when it refuses to do what you want it to.