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Review: On his new album, Arca's introspection turns dark

Alejandro Ghersi takes a sharp look inward

Arca’s 2014 debut album Xen was named after Alejandro Ghersi’s alter-ego. She was feminine, but menacing; seductive and stylized but raw and uncompromising. She was everything Ghersi, a young, queer producer, born to relative wealth in Venezuela, wasn’t. And yet she was an extension of him, or at least what he wanted to be. The follow-up to Xen is Mutant (out Friday) and if Xen was about trying on a new personality, Mutant is Ghersi digging deeply — uncomfortably so — into his own.

Though Ghersi’s solo work has always existed largely outside the mainstream, he’s produced for artists like Kanye West, Bjork, and FKA twigs. In those songs — like Kanye’s "Hold My Liquor" and "Blood on the Leaves" — Arca’s cold, abstract melodies add an esoteric film to more traditional pop structure. But his work always propelled a song forward, or at least made it more sonically captivating. In Arca’s solo work, those cold, abstract melodies become the central force of movement, and on Mutant, they’re not interested in captivating.

Mutant feels more straight-faced and more consequential than anything Ghersi has done before

Mutant’s detached personality is not unexpected. Arca’s solo career so far has followed a kind of a backwards trajectory, getting more and more inaccessible as his music reaches a wider audience. In 2013, Arca released &&&&&, a 25-minute mix of metallic chatter, glued together by little bubblegum bits of pop sensibility. Its darkness was balanced out by its tendency to meander toward dreamy territory. Xen was a little stranger and sometimes abrasive, but elements of chamber and choral music added something ecclesiastic to its nihilistic weight. Mutant is not only esoteric, it’s also free of the lightness that previously balanced out Arca’s underlying thread of sharp gloom. Maybe it’s because of this constant weight that Mutant feels more straight-faced and more consequential than anything Ghersi has done before.

Ghersi has talked at length about his impulse to shapeshift with each album. In an interview with The Fader last year, he talked about shedding the pieces of himself that don’t seem useful: "You jump off a cliff because you know that when you land, and you crash like a bunch of Legos and you fall apart, you’ll pick up the pieces that are left of you. But you don’t reattach the ones that are not useful to you, that don’t feel like they’re you." From the opening notes of Mutant, on the stuttering, frenzied "Alive," the listener is forced to wade through unfamiliar terrain. Listening to the track is reminiscent of sliding down a marble wall: rapid and slippery, with nothing to grab onto. "Umbilical," one of the few songs with a vocal sample, feels like aural body horror — the rubbery, elastic synths almost sound like skin tearing.

Mutant may be Arca’s least melodic album to date, which means it’s completely unpredictable. "En" features a vocal sigh that sounds like a man choking, which is interrupted by what sounds like a nest of angry cicadas, their thick wings furiously rubbing against each other. "Siren Interlude" is exactly what it sounds like, and Ghersi’s use of such a recognizable sound — one that usually signals injury or crime — serves to displace the listener from a moment of surreal horror and into reality, where the danger is even more real.

At 20 tracks and over an hour long, Mutant has the potential to feel overwhelming. But Arca’s style has always been direct, and on Mutant, that directness takes the place of the auditory relief his other albums have had. On Xen, Ghersi’s move after a minute or so of an especially jarring track would be to shift into a softer, more agile composition. But on Mutant, rather than transition, Ghersi more often than not just ends the song. So there are a few tracks on Mutant that fall below the one-minute mark, and several that hover around two minutes. Mutant’s playfulness comes not from actual jest, but from its dogged inability to linger.

Mutant’s playfulness comes not from actual jest, but from its dogged inability to linger

Mutant is not an easy album to listen to, and Ghersi knows it — in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, he said that he expects people who enjoyed his previous albums will dislike it. But Mutant also feels, more than any of Arca’s past works, like it was made just for Ghersi. The album’s uncomfortable sighs, grating hiccups, and buzzing agitation are Ghersi’s own. Arca has made an album that’s born of a newfound internal boldness. It’s his version of the memoiristic album, like Weezer’s Pinkerton or Red House Painters’ Ocean Beach. Mutant feels intensely personal, but it’s still opaque; anything Mutant reveals about Arca comes with a small reminder that he could easily be someone else in a year.