With his debut album Xen, Arca toned down the aggressive, colorful impulses that had marked the straight-to-Soundcloud mixtape &&&&& and the pair of Stretch EPs. Those were the releases that had fixed eyes on him as a producer, even securing him a spot among Yeezus’ distinguished panel of collaborators. Xen was a beautiful, genderfucked piece of work, but it was decidedly an album — polite and classy despite the grotesque body horror imagery that accompanied its singles. With Mutant, the artist born Alejandro Ghersi pushes back into those rawer edges, bringing Xen’s polish and gymnastics into increasingly feral space.
It’s been a year since Mute put out Xen, but Arca’s presence has lingered continuously ever since. He co-produced most of Bjork’s devastating ninth album, Vulnicura, and he put out the menacing, sensual Sheep, whose tracklist would end up bleeding into Mutant. His year so far gives the impression that he never stops making music; he just lets it ooze from him like honey in the most convenient container possible at any given time. Now, at just over an hour, Mutant marks Ghersi’s largest and most ambitious volume of music to date.
Like Sheep and Xen, Mutant centers its abstract dramas on the body. Arca’s compositions unfold in breathy tones, synths pulsing like the rush of blood through arteries, drums splintering like bone. But unlike Xen’s slick, plastic biomorphs, who seemed in videos to be all surface, all shell, Mutant grips the innards of corporeal experience. Arca wants to look deeper than skin, to taste the flush of adrenaline and smell the sweat that pours forth when body meets body. Sensual engagement is seen from the inside as Arca investigates bodily desire and bodily aggression, only to find they share a common root.
People tend to imagine themselves from the brain on down, and much of Xen seemed preoccupied with the cerebral components of identity — the people we imagine ourselves to be when we can forget about the bodies we actually have. Mutant, in biting, gorgeous microcosms like “Vanity”, peers into the parts of ourselves we can’t so easily control. Rage and desire and terror and anxiety all seem to start at our bones and overtake us from the inside. With Mutant, Arca chases down those sudden, visceral fits.
Mutant progresses almost instinctively through moments of bliss and fear and boredom. There’s plenty of downtime in the hourlong run, like the piano constellation “Else” or the harpsichord psalm “Gratitud”, but that space enhances the album’s tighter meshes. The stillness makes you want to stir, and then you get to; agitated moments like the anxious, yearning “Soichiro” apply both tension and relief to the same area with their sudden density. The relative sparseness of melody makes Mutant slipperier than much of Arca’s older work, but the way he’s able to use texture and rhythm as his primary tools of progression is worth the patience it asks of us.
Though we don’t perceive it the same way, the body carries an intelligence of its own. It plots subliminally beneath our most immediate senses; it steers what we consider to be our “selves” with a visceral logic. Arca appeals to that logic on Mutant, sliding away from his more cerebral experiments into an often uncomfortable survey of how and why people move the way they do from the bones on up. Often it’s difficult to parse the album from track to track; the song titles appear mostly out of formality, as reference points for navigating the work rather than implied divisions. Mutant unfurls like a singular body, and its nuanced empathy with the shame and horror and joy of corporeality makes it an enthralling piece to experience.
Essential Tracks: “Vanity”, “Gratitud”, and “Soichiro”