2020 Music Reviews

Album Review: Arca ‘KiCk i’

Arca KiCk i

Venezuelan electronic producer Alejandra Ghersi is an artist concerned with absolute purity of expression. Each of her three previous releases under the Arca moniker have, though each exploring a variety of aesthetic modes, represented a full, primal realisation of its creator’s innermost emotions. Less preoccupied with distinct tracks than with symphonic, explorative instrumental movements, these offerings refract and abstract raw, human feeling into fluid noise open to interpretation. On KiCk i, the fourth Arca album and first since Ghersi came out as a trans woman in 2018, the agenda has shifted slightly, with naturalistic ebb and flow taking a backseat. This is a dense, concise package of direct, distinct songs, each with a clear identity and mission, and each themselves a capsule-like dispatch from a different region of Ghersi’s far-reaching soul.

Opener “Nonbinary” sets the forthright tone straightaway. Low, shifting percussion underpins Ghersi’s brassy spoken word, with which she unambiguously lays her cards on the table — “I don’t give a fuck what you think […] Bitch, you’ll never know me.” As her vocal picks up the pace and become more irate, the instrumentation takes on an agitated quality that suggests Ghersi as a being of many facets, all of them jostling for space and competing for attention. It’s distinctly more songlike than what regular Arca listeners might be used to, and this characteristic goes on to define the entire record. Ahead of the album’s release, Ghersi identified KiCk i’s mission statement on Instagram as “to allow every self to express itself” without consciously limiting how much airtime each of her selves might be permitted. Indeed, even in the disparities between tunes here there can be perceived a clear and unfettered enthusiasm for uninhibited exploration.

Ghersi’s emergence as a potent force in electronica and art-pop has been buoyed as much by her production, engineering and songwriting collaborations with artists such as Björk, Kanye West, Blood Orange and Kelela as it has been by her own output. The influence of this is clear in the deftness with which KiCk i shifts between sounds without seeming forced or awkward. While Ghersi sings in Spanish on a number of cuts (and did so  previously on her 2017 self-titled offering), there’s a more explicit nod to Latin music on several occasions, whether the pacy stomp of “Mequetrefe” or the ethereal, chamber-y lament of “Calor.” This style is co-opted subtly into the Arca template, with synth and beat-driven inflections maintaining that consistent signature.

Arca the producer is out in full force on the handful of tracks to feature guest artists, though Ghersi continues to make her fingerprints just visible enough. With words taken from early-20th century Spanish poet Antonio Machado, “Afterwards” gives two thirds of its length over to a soaring vocal from recurring collaborator Björk. It is a quintessential distillation of the Icelandic singer’s appeal, floating about a restrained, swirling instrumental that eventually gives way to Ghersi’s own vocal like the passing of a torch. London-based rapper Shygirl delivers a husky, focused flow over the sharp, hard synth hits of “Watch” as Ghersi tinkers in the background, while “KLK” makes keen, innovative use of contemporary flamenco singer Rosalía by chopping up her vocals amid a pounding Latin beat primed for clubs. These tracks are punchy and well-executed, showing off the multiplicity of Ghersi’s talents while leaving space around the edges to experiment and surprise.

Other songs show Ghersi’s increasing willingness to lean entirely into a pop sensibility. Early highlight “Time” combines a simple, glistening synth loop sequence with a ghostly processed vocal to create an elegant, earnest ballad that may be one of the finest tracks of the year. “Riquiquí” sees Ghersi trading back and forth between Spanish and English lyrics over a throbbing and imminently appealing beat, while the mischievous, forthright and unrelenting “Rip the Slit” wins out with a repetitive emphasis on the potent visual of its titular hook. A collaboration with British experimental pop producer Sophie on “La Chíqui” sees the guest’s penchant for deforming and reorienting the conventions of popular music rear its head on the Arca sound, eliciting an out-the-gate aggression that only occasionally gives way to blissful harmony. It’s an exuberant, ADHD piece of music that encapsulates the multiplicity at the album’s heart.

In purity of expression, though, there must be vulnerability. Ghersi allows her manic experimentalism to give way as KiCk i approaches the home stretch — first in the sweeping strings and gently driving beat of “Machote,” which is deeply melodic and melancholy. However, the stripped-back final track “No Queda Nada” is stunning in its bare-souled authenticity. Gone are the gleeful bells and whistles that populate the majority of the running order, instead giving centre stage to a desolate, yearning vocal from Ghersi. Singing in Spanish, she reaches out to a love that has consumed her entirely, leaving that need exposed and prostrate waiting to be lifted up. It’s a perfect mirror to the assertiveness of opener “Nonbinary,” giving full voice to Ghersi’s exterior and internal personae — the queer mad scientist, indulging all the toys and experiences at her disposal, and the wounded soul lying in wait for acceptance and love.

Taken as a whole, KiCk i is a delirious tour-de-force, a compilation of experiments that don’t fully cohere but still build up to an intriguing final image. Here, Ghersi has dispensed with some of the obtuseness and unknowability that at once made her previous work either so appealing or inaccessible to different audiences, reengineering her impulses towards something more impactful and ambitious. KiCk I is an imperfect, sometimes awkward track-to-track listen, but this latest Arca release is a rich, detailed and ultimately successful exploration of the many selves within.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.