Xen is unlike anything that was released this year. It is esoteric, unique, and exists in its own cloistered universe, yet it’s somehow unshakeably relevant and will undoubtedly become a major influence on new work produced next year.
The most fervently experimental tracks are what seemingly define Arca’s sound in the eyes of most commentators. Any roundup of his ‘sound’ will reference his trademark screaming synths, unsignposted u-turns and choppy, half-dead beats. But what truly marks it out as the greatest album this year is that for all the innovation – the art-house exploration of structure and the development of a new sonic palette – Arca never lost sight of what renders his music so much more than a scrapbook of interesting sounds: emotion. The album is rooted in something heartfelt, genuine and pure. It is far from mere pretension, and its avant-garde status-breaking unfamiliarity should not be considered its most exciting trait.
The emotional underbelly of the album is most obviously explored on tracks like Held Apart and Wound, which trade the cutting strings for tender, ethereal simplicity. But even the harsher tunes are steeped in pathos. The majority of the album takes the form of darkly lit anti-anthems like Sisters, Slit Thru and Bullet Chained. Failed and Xen and Theivery and Tongue. They are all songs which straddle an ambiguous tonal line, never simply ‘sad’ in an obvious way. They might even appear opaque to the point of inaccessibility.
But these challenging moments are part and parcel of what makes Xen such a rewarding listen. Like a great work of fiction, it is difficult to get through, and not necessarily always ‘pleasant’ in the moment, but stick with it and you’ll find your mind has been actively exercised. Far from a passive listener, you’ve been engaged as a reader.
Just like a great novel, Xen has a protagonist. It is the eponymous, genderless figure that stands on the cover, at once asserting and deflecting attention from itself. Through a measured engagement with the press this year Ghersi has discussed this figure that, since his childhood in Caracas, has been a sort of alter-ego for him; an expression of the fragility and softness he kept inside, connected to his sexual attraction to other men, and his struggle to reconcile himself to it. It was the expression of a side of himself he kept hidden from the view of those who expected him to be that which society deemed he should be: a strong, brash and heterosexual Boy.
In the twisted logic of his November LP, you can hear how the time spent keeping such pivotal feelings and urges to himself twisted them up and changed them into something both harsh and beautiful. Unable to express himself in Spanish, he turned to software and drum-pads. That’s why the meandering keyboard on Sad Bitch reaches out almost like a real voice. It is expressing itself in a conversational, organic way - abandoning the constraints of a conventional time signature is just one method used by Ghersi to achieve this shudder-inducing effect.
So Xen deserves to be considered far more than an interesting oddity, and should be lauded for the multiverse of ways it articulates its own emotion. It is a beguiling and captivating odyssey into the experience of an estranged individual, growing up with a repressed identity then finally letting it out. Yes, it may not be easy, but multiple listens bring a rich reward: the year’s most fascinating album.
Words: Francis Blagburn