Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

The Desire And Paradox Of Arca

Notes on the producer’s third album

Alejandro Ghersi has sung before. On “Wound,” a song from his debut album, Xen, his voice oozed through digital filters like blood through gauze. He scattered pixels of his voice throughout his first mixtapes under the name Arca, issued for free on SoundCloud around the time he was working in the producers’ room on Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus. But he’s never sung like he does on his self-titled third LP, on which his voice blossoms violently from his throat.

Unlike Xen or his second album, Mutant, Arca has lyrics — sheets of them, scribbled purply in Spanish, about the kind of desire that must escape through the mouth when it can no longer be contained in the body. It’s like vomit, this wanting, ugly and acidic and offering profound relief once it’s expelled. Arca’s music has always centered the body; his album covers and music videos depict grotesque figures rendered in pristine CGI by his longtime collaborator Jesse Kanda, and the jarring shifts in Arca’s synth work intimate wordless narratives of queer displacement. There’s a difference, though, between tracing the body with prosthetics and letting it make its own noise. Arca’s voice announces itself plainly on the album’s opening track, “Piel," without Auto-Tune or polish, full of spit and blood and hunger and hurt.

That the unaltered human voice is the strangest sound heard on Arca is testament to Ghersi’s holistic vernacular as a composer. All his hallmarks — detuned bells, snarled percussion, bass that hits like the floor dropping out from under you — ripple through the album only to be decentered by his singing, a foreign, inscrutable presence. What a comprehensive world he’s built to make the voice itself sound like an alien intruder.

Even the altered voice — pitch-shifted on the pounding “Reverie,” multi-tracked and looped on “Desafío” — demands a disarming kind of attention. Arca provokes an often uncomfortable pathos in the ear, his voice ripe and dripping with anguish. You feel looked at when you listen to him sing, as though something is wanted of you that you could not possibly give. In these extremes of affect, Arca illuminates the paradoxical power in rendering yourself powerless.

Where Xen grappled with feelings of androgyny and Mutant with isolation, Arca coils itself around queer desire, which by definition is entangled with violence, or at the very least its threat. Remember that there are camps where gay, trans, and queer people are detained and tortured; remember that in the United States we call them prisons, and narrow our focus especially to queers of color. HIV gets shelved as a relic in the public eye while it ravages communities shadowed from the spotlight, under the governorship of men who would rather Americans be dead than queer. Love, then, tangles inextricably with death — love is something that’s done in spite of death and adjacent to it. "Anoche yo soñé nuestra muerte simultánea,” Arca sings on “Anoche." "Anoche yo lloré de felicidad / Qué extraño me sentí.” Last night I dreamt we died together. Last night I cried of joy. How strange I felt.

His words echo Morrissey’s in The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”: “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” Both singers dream of outcasts dying together in an ultimate act of love, but Arca doesn’t see the same light. Death is already inside him, roiling through him even at the album’s most beatific moments. Melodically, “Desafío” is Arca’s purest pop song yet, and its sugar-crusted refrain goes, "Hay un abismo dentro de mí.” There is an abyss inside me. With shine in his voice, he begs a lover to find him anyway, to hold him and devour him and fuck him right in the abyss.

Arca stretches the paradoxes of queer desire to the point of fertile melodrama. The object of that desire remains in shadow; who the feeling is for is beside the point. Arca luxuriates in the feeling itself, the yearning and self-flagellation it brings, the gorgeous nightmare of skin on imaginary skin. He sinks his teeth into the wanting until it putrefies, and then he slurps up even more.