Incongruence. That was the only word I could think of to explain my apathy.
I was 22 and a senior in college, speaking to a friend about—and the alcohol clouds my memory of the night—the potential for social change and the impact it could have on the personal sphere. Despite political gains and the rising tides of tolerance and acceptance, the road ahead felt, nonetheless, paved with futility. I’d soberly consumed Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant earlier that week, and my suggestible, drunk self couldn’t purge this passage from my mind: “The fundamental predicament of homosexuals is one that no amount of legislation can improve… To rob blackmail [a somewhat frequent occurrence in 20th century Great Britain before same-sex activity was decriminalized] of its potency, it would be necessary to remove the homosexual’s feeling of shame. This no power on earth can do.”
That’s a difficult label to publicly affix to my relationship with my sexuality. Shame. Even as I type this, I’m tempted to pop back up a few lines to clarify my gay credentials: That I came out on LiveJournal some 13 years ago, that I helped organize Gay-Straight Alliance actions at my high school in the face of a particularly homophobic algebra teacher, that I was radicalized by Out of the Closets and That’s Revolting! before I could legally drink, that I instinctively knew how to contour and highlight with stage makeup before ever learning either term. But pride, whether compulsory or not, can’t exist if shame isn’t propping it up from behind. With apologies to Bette Midler, shame is kind of the wind beneath pride’s wings, and that painfully symbiotic relationship comes into play on Arca’s new album Mutant.
Mutant is out today on Mute Records. It’s the 25-year-old producer’s second full-length studio release, following 2014’s Xen, a pair of mixtapes, and a trio of EPs. Arca, born Alejandro Ghersi in Venezuela, rose to prominence over the last couple years thanks to production credits on Kanye West’s Yeezus, FKA twigs’ LP1, and Björk’s Vulnicura, among others.
It was initially, and incorrectly, reported that Arca was the sole producer on Björk’s 2015 album, despite his attempts to clarify his role as co-producer even months in advance. Perhaps a gay man is able to reap all the benefits of his male identity when paired side by side with a woman. The kyriarchy is just real.
Ghersi told Rolling Stone this week that he’s been a fan of Björk’s since before he hit puberty and that her music “shaped the way I listen to music and the way I perceive sound.” The Icelandic musician’s influence is apparent throughout Mutant but her reach extends far deeper than the avant-garde production. Her fearless storytelling sensibility—I mean, this is the woman who found the poetry in mineral crystallization—appears to have also been passed on to her “student” during those Vulnicura studio sessions. Buried within the LP’s avant-garde Sturm und Drang lies a narrative that feels personal enough to be autobiographical and limitless enough to encompass the very universe itself.
It’s a distinctly queer narrative, too, one that evokes themes of rejection, reclamation, subjectivity, and control. Would Ghersi have been able to tell such an expansive narrative so masterfully—in a genre that doesn’t lend itself to narrative, no less—had he not worked alongside the skilled storyteller? Thankfully, we don’t have to find out.
Ghersi also explained to Rolling Stone that his sophomore effort is a “more extroverted” response to his debut’s “excursion inward.” “Mutant is more related to the real world, like an interrelation between me and other beings,” he said.
You feel this conflict from the record’s first stuttering chords. “Alive” sounds not unlike a recording of ELO’s Xanadu opener that’s been scratched in key parts, and evokes the first waking moments of life, when only the limbs’ ability to crawl can prevent you from embarking on what lies ahead. That birth turns violent on Mutant‘s starkly amelodic title track as the sound of suspension-bridge coils come snapping to the ground. Or, perhaps, they’re snapping skyward to shackle the industrial beast in place. External pressure has been introduced to the auteur’s world, and his sense of unfettered possibility, found only minutes before, never again regains full control of the narrative.
The push and pull continues as the subject’s aesthetic consciousness blossoms on “Vanity,” only to be thrown to the bonfire and baptized a “Sinner” in sonic bursts of fire and brimstone, further criminalized by sirens soon after. Reaction leads to punishment, punishment leads to revelation, and he must now navigate life under constraint. Yet, it is only through these new confines that certain paths forward can be accessed. Could a queer person find their fellow “Snakes”—a reference to Arca and Björk’s shared sign in the Chinese zodiac—if they weren’t forced to slither in limited patches of grass? No, the album seems to say, in quite philosophical terms; enlightenment can often only come through suffering.
Four and a half years after that college discussion of incongruence, I found myself desperately—and, once again, drunkenly—trying explain the importance of Fifth Harmony to a friend at a bar. I pointed to the fact that they publicly self-identify as feminists. I cited lyrics from “Reflection” where they sing about wearing their “uncomfortable” shoes and “tight” dresses for themselves, not the male gaze. “They’re reclaiming it!” I yelled over the din of Don Pedro. But my friend held resolutely to her argument that disengaging with the political nature of something problematic because it make you uncomfortable is not the same as reclaiming it.
I’m not saying she’s right about Fifth Harmony, but there’s something to be said about how digestible reclamation language has become since its advent among third-wave feminists. I’m sure fashion retailers are totally on board with women reclaiming uncomfortable shoes and tight dresses from the male gaze, just as I’m sure Absolut doesn’t mind it when queer people reclaim debauchery at an Absolut-sponsored Pride event. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either form of reclamation, but without introspection has anything really been reclaimed at all? On Mutant, Arca does not hurry to bridge the gap between marginalization and re-centering. He’s not afraid to dwell in the messy, shameful emotions that stem from being othered. He’s not afraid of being vulnerable. He’s not afraid to expose how terms like “Mutant” or “Faggot”—the titles of tracks two and 18, respectively—sting before they are reclaimed, for what’s there to reclaim if the epithets weren’t hurled maliciously in the first place? The incongruent can find its place, his record shows, it just might not be on congruent terms.