Arca’s ‘Mutant’ Explores the Fluidity of the Self

By
Share:

The first thing you might notice upon diving into the Venezuelan-born artist Arca’s new record Mutant is its structure. Of the album’s 20 tracks, only four ever break the four-minute mark. With the exception of the nearly seven-and-a-half minute title track, Mutant is a collection of short ideas, woven together in a tapestry that blends at its seams.

Arca, born Alejandro Ghersi, is quite prolific — he’s collaborated on recent records with artists no less meticulous than Kanye West, Björk, FKA Twigs, and Kelela, and yet he’s found time to release his second full-length in as many years. And he’s not just throwing things together; his compositions are densely layered soundscapes that reveal new textures with each listen. Rarely is anything repeated or looped in exactly the same way.

Arca has contributed to some of the biggest and most important pop records of the past couple years, but this is not pop music. He revels in discomfort. On his 2012 EPs Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, he paired hip-hop beats with lyrics meant to provoke or even disgust. When he tells the Guardian that those lyrics, about “receiving a penis into you” were “about the wildest thing you could confront a hip-hop audience with,” one gains a glimpse into his perspective.

Mutant doesn’t feature lyrics, and it’s unlikely that the punishing glitches that make up the record would be confused with hip-hop, but that desire to provoke is still evident. “I’m an enemy of something repeating in the exact same way or too long,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year, “because you lose access to a particular kind of feeling of unpredictability or discomfort.” The discomfort is no dalliance; every one of his videos with his visual collaborator Jesse Kanda seems designed to inspire discomfort and confusion, whether it’s through the use of a CGI creature or a close-up of his penis.

Arca’s 2014 LP Xen was an introverted examination into the identity of a “genderless being.” With it, he displayed a keen understanding of the fluidity of identity, and the fallacy of the binaries we create in society. Mutant is a response to that album, an outward look from this new genderless perspective. It’s full of short vignettes, in which you can see the building blocks of the pop songs he helps make with other artists. You can hear the influence of his electronic forebears, Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails, and Björk — the Icelandic fairy herself recruited him to collaborate on her latest, Vulnicura — but Mutant can often sound as if the “microbeats” she created on Vespertine were isolated and extrapolated into longer compositions.

He might not agree, but it’s apparent that Arca is more of a sound designer than a songwriter. The fluidity of the self that he explores conceptually is also relevant to the music itself, which feels like the film score to a fever dream. Listening without visuals, it’s easy to lose your place, to not know where one song ends and one begins. In the Rolling Stone interview, he tells Erik Morse that “I had found a particular set of characteristics …[that] make up a kind of sonic identity a lot of my tracks have in common,” he said. “Instead of making a track that was purely melodic or purely rhythmic, now it was a song that had a rhythm and melody. I feel like there was a sharp divide between a few different sides of me and that has been bridged.” If Xen was an exploration of his Self, then Mutant represents the discovery of just what that Self is.

It’s almost fruitless to try to examine individual “songs” on Mutant, as they seem utterly out of place without the context of the LP. But there are transcendent moments, like the crushing and sinister organ sounds on “Sever” or the skittering percussion on “Snakes.” But in the age of the digital single, this is certainly an album to take in as a whole, preferably with the lights off. It’s challenging, layered, aggressive, and difficult to unpack in a single listen. But the rewards it yields are worth the effort.