Unión del Sur, Chile
by Andrew Casillas
How do you follow-up your masterpiece? The common theory is that great artists deliberately evade the sounds of their great works in the name of aural evolution (think of Café Tacuba chasing Reves/Yosoy with Cuatro Caminos, or every album the Beatles made from 1965 to 1969). Students of history, however, will see the past sixty years of popular music as deviations on a common theme. Except in very rare cases (say, Radiohead following up OK Computer with Kid A), the rock era celebrates artists that formulate an unimpeachable template and harvest that sound to diminishing returns. This is why the Rolling Stones are celebrated for their perseverance; Prince for his idiosyncrasies; Spoon for their Spoon-ness. This is the route to immortality.
Javiera Mena has certainly established a distinctive sound, which is impressive considering the cumulative length of her output is shorter than Goodfellas. In essence: Casio keys, electric drums, sound effects, bass-centric melodies, simple and direct lyrics; again, deviations on a common theme. What made her first two albums (not to mention Prissa’s Ni Tu Ni Yo, her collaboration album with Francisca Villela), so compelling was its infectious nature—big beats giving way to big choruses giving way to big emotions. Her first solo single, “Al Siguiente Nivel,” was a mission statement of her musical ambitions. And it just happened to be a perfect pop song. For 2010’s Mena, Javiera diversified her sound, adding gloss and intricacy to her arrangements, resulting in one of the seminal pop albums of this century.
So one more time: how do you follow-up your masterpiece? For her new album, Otra Era, Javiera Mena chooses to ride the formula to its purest version. Otra Era is the sensational dance-pop classic in the vein of Kylie Minogue’s Fever and the Pet Shops Boys’ Very, combining the giddy bombast of the former with the pulsating Euro-dance rhythms of the latter. Indeed, this is the first Javiera Mena album to reject disco as a foundation. Instead, Javiera reconfigures her sound to fixate on either house music rhythms or frenetic dance-pop. The result is a bouncy, confident beast of a record, and the most uniform-sounding Javiera Mena album to date, with grooves and hooks creeping at every turn.
Much of Otra Era’s pre-release buzz centered about Javiera recording in Miami, aiming to create her “pop album,” as if Paulino Rubio needed to watch her seat on La Voz Kids. While Otra Era is certainly unabashedly pop, it’s not packed full of saccharine, in part because of Cristian Heyne’s production. Javiera’s right hand man across each album, Heyne operates almost like another vocalist, with tempo changes and well-placed percussion lifting ostensibly generic-pop beats into punch-drunk bangers.
And the bangers come as quickly as you can hit play. Opener “Los Olores De Tu Alma” pulsates like a jetliner at takeoff. A pounding backbeat thumps away as Javiera pushes her vocals in a fit of exasperated lust. Then the chorus hits, and the vocals stretch the words “como todo el sonido” into yearning, the beat breaks away into a swirling keyboard cacophony. It’s a dynamite section of music, and perhaps the most aggressive section she’s recorded since the breakdown on Esquemas Juveniles’ “Cuando Hablamos.”
Aggression is certainly the best word to describe Otra Era in relation to Esquemas Juveniles and Mena. In fact, the album’s strength lies in the teeth imbued within the production. Take “Esa Fuerza” for example. The song rides along on high synth notes for two minutes, sounding like a simple dance number reminiscent of Kylie’s “Love at First Sight.” Then, two minutes in, the middle eight hits, and the vocals chant “la unica que ser” until dissolving into a sweaty keyboard breakdown continuing throughout the remainder of the track, a key tempo change that effectively changes it into a different (and better) song. For all its charms, however, “Esa Fuerza” is not the strongest song of the record.
Instead, the three-song combo opening side two are the true showcase for Otra Era’s sonic attack. In single “La Joya,” which still sounds like it’ll be running your summers ten years from now, the exuberant “Que Me Tome la Noche,” and the perfectly titled “La Carretera,” Mena and Heyne have three numbers that allow them to operate on all cylinders. “La Joya” allows the pair to indulge headfirst in 80s nostalgia, sounding like the unintended mix of Lisa Lisa and Madonna you could have sworn already existed. This is before (again) hitting the accelerator at the bridge, tearing the fucking lid off the song and letting the keys ride it into another dimension. “Que Me Tome la Noche” is freestyle on steroids, lifting those keyboards Britney Spears used on “Til the World Ends” that sounded like fire from the sky (or foam falling on the dance floor, I can’t really tell). And “La Carretera” is a 90 mph slice of brash beachside firework pop, launching hooks the way 30 Rock launched jokes. Javiera Mena always held a debt to Gloria Estefan (see "Luz de Piedra de Luna") and this track pays it back by riding the Miami Sound Machine (with a tint of Capullo) into the goddamn ocean.
Of course, this is still a Javiera Mena album, meaning it must be judged according to its slow jamz. And while “Pide” and “Quedate un Ratito Mas” are tender, sometimes blissful songs, the heart of this album is its title track. As a standalone single “Otra Era” was charming and lovely, but as heard within the parent album it is as gorgeous as Javiera Mena has ever sounded. Atypical of the rest of the album, “Otra Era” revels in minimalism and is built solely on an array of keys and basic drum effects. The ethereal “Fool on the Hill”-like melody sustains the track, but it’s Javiera’s lyrics and cadence that grounds the song. Long derided (and sometimes rightly) for writing overly naïve lyrics, “Otra Era” doubles-down on the mantras. Here, however, the music acts as an emotional reinforcement. Note how, after a dizzying array of stadium synths, the final chorus shuts down so Javiera Mena can address the audience (“Piensa en mi como soy / Piensa lejos de mí”). Then, in the turn of an eye: madness; synthesizers exploding at every turn; “llévame a otra era.” It’s the type of dance song you would prefer to listen to sitting down and holding hands.
Making a fun dance-pop album is not hard so long as you remember that people want to dance. But making a great dance-pop album requires the artist to have the confidence to establish an identity and not cater to the lowest common denominator. Otra Era is a great album, genre be damned, because Javiera Mena knows what she is and what how to package her sound. This is why “Espada,” almost a year after its release, still sounds urgently brazen and satisfying far after it’s debut. Javiera’s artistic maturity has allowed her to tinker with her formula like an aural wizard—knowing when to let hooks sink and when to unleash her bag of tricks. Now, let’s make this clear: Otra Era is not the equal of Mena. But very few albums are. And even after the inevitable nitpicking, Otra Era still sounds like a modern classic from one of the classic artists of this generation. One that is clearly on the road to immortality.