If one adjective sums up Juana Molina’s recent work, it is “dreamlike”. And I don’t mean “dreamlike” as in soft lullabies or swooning chamber pop — I mean instead that narrow register of the musical spectrum where the adjective “beautiful” sits side by side with “unnerving” and “unearthly”. Better, it seems, than any other musician out there, Molina has long recognized the slippery nature of dreams.
Consider this: for as well as we think we can parse the good dreams from the bad ones, when you really pause to think about them, the distinctions start to disappear; dreams, by and large, are startlingly strange things — and this album captures that. I mean that, if you can believe me, as high praise.
Constructed from looping bass lines, whirring guitars and keyboards, and her enigmatic, murmuring voice, this latest collection of songs from Argentina’s premiere electro-folk songstress is a glorious mess of sound. But like other great popular music musicians who toe the avant-garde line — Tom Waits comes to mind, as does Radiohead — there is a vision here behind what sometimes seems like scattered bits and pieces of songs. Part of the fun of this record is listening to how Molina puzzles everything together.
For those familiar with Molina, Wed 21 represents a thoughtful continuation of 2008’s Un día, which traveled similar soundscapes, equally littered with looping fragments and weirdly juxtaposed rhythms. The development from that release to this one is one of fullness and forcefulness. The titular track on Un día, for all its spiraling loops, goes relatively easy on the ears. The titular track of this new album is more sinuous — more assertive in its drive to experiment.
But besides the open insistence on challenging the listener, the album also just sounds bigger than anything she’s done before. While most of Molina’s previous work found her confined to acoustic instruments, Wed 21 sees her expanding her palette to electric guitar along with a beefed-up swarm of electronic/keyboard effects and inventive percussion.
You may have noticed that I’ve so far avoided what might seem the most salient point about Molina for English-speaking listeners: she doesn’t much bother with the lingua franca of pop music.
But the language gap isn’t necessarily something that should put new listeners off. Even with my rusty Spanish, it’s hard not to notice this lovely and strange set of lyrics. In “Las edades”, one of the album’s highlights, Molina touches on getting older, asking the self-reflexive question: “¿Quién las edades cuenta?” (“Who counts the ages?”). In the lovely song “Lo decidí yo”, she asks — in a call and response with herself — “¿Quién decidió determinar qué es un adiós?” (“Who decided to determine what a goodbye is?”) And the final track on the album, “Final feliz”, describes (of course) a surreal dream, with Molina narrating at a breakneck pace and not hesitating to pile on the instruments.
So don’t let your poor Spanish or lack of bilingualism (or total lack thereof) stop you from giving this record a spin. The only thing I counsel is patience. And as much as I hate recommending ideal “listening scenarios”, I endorse plugging your earphones in to this as you fall asleep one night. I can’t promise that you won’t have weird, wacky dreams — but wouldn’t that partly be the point?