To Infinity And Beyond: ¡Ay! By Lucrecia Dalt Is A Stunning Sci-Fi Pop Opera

On her stunning new LP, Lucrecia Dalt makes a hard left turn both away from and toward the past, says Bernie Brooks

Photo by Aina Climent

Though defunct since the 90s, there’s been a sprawling salt mine just outside of Kraków at Wieliczka for nearly 800 years. But the thing is, calling it a “mine” doesn’t cut it. It’s Tolkien-esque. A real-life Moria, full of wonders but undeniably terrifying in its way. One can easily imagine a Balrog barreling down its tunnels, smashing up salt statuary of popes and saints and other sundry figures of import, the salty Last Supper, relief carvings and chandeliers, chapels and concert hall. Fly, you fools!

But of course there’s no Balrog in those depths, or goofy little hobbits or whatever. What’s there is a claustrophobic elevator and a long hallway leading to a massive and ornately carved chamber dating back to the nineteenth century. The air down there is unlike anything you’ve ever breathed. In the chamber, there’s a balcony or maybe it’s more of a mezzanine. My partner and I, both jetlagged and flu-ish, made our way up there, the air burning our sinuses in a not altogether unpleasant way. We were there for Unsound, but more for the experience of being down in the mines than anything related to music. Anyhow, we were mostly unfamiliar with Lucrecia Dalt, who was about to perform, and kinda felt like shit, but how could we miss the opportunity to sit in a place like this?

In my memory, Dalt is a speck in the distance, barely visible in the improbably dark hall lit by dim salt chandeliers, performing compositions from Anticlines, a brilliant record and something of a breakthrough. Or, if not quite that, it was at least the first time everyone I knew was talking about her work. For probably an hour, the chamber was filled up with sounds that, despite the album’s relationship to geology, seemed at odds with the space – nebulous and unsolid, fractured and ethereal, alternately soothing and anxious. This was a magical way to discover an equally magical artist, and we’ve been fans ever since. Although, given the circumstances, how could we not?

Dalt’s latest, the surprising ¡Ay!, is a radical departure. Sonically a clear break from her previous output, it seems likely to be yet another breakthrough. Reading about it, ¡Ay! seems strange as hell. It’s a sci-fi concept album whose central conceit was conceived in collaboration with philosopher and noisenik Miguel Prado and is rooted in discussions of things like atemporality and consciousness. It stars an interdimensional alien called Preta who sports a body made of scavenged dead skin cells as it experiences the things that define how we experience the universe – linear time, material boundaries, etc. – for the first time.

Almost impossibly, it is also by a wide margin Dalt’s most pop-oriented and accessible LP. ¡Ay! is, as they say, very easy on the ears.

And that, right there, is the main point of departure – one made all the more dramatic given the overall vibe of Dalt’s last proper solo LP, the equally excellent but none-more-different No era sólida. Dalt’s work has long possessed a sensuousness, a particular and peculiar relationship to tactility. Her previous work hung in the air, like a hand poised to touch but never touching, and as such embodying all the potential of being touched – sometimes calming, sometimes exciting, sometimes menacing. On No era sólida, that spectrum of potential narrowed, soured, turned to horror. Within the confines of its runtime, under its spell, no good can come from contact. It’s a poltergeist haunting, time spent in the dark in a bad place. And a bit challenging, overtly “experimental” even. Tinnitus tones alienate, instrumentals seem designed to replicate the feeling of, or perhaps instill, nausea. By contrast, ¡Ay! is overtly un-experimental. By comparison, it is a comforting hug of an album, a slow dance with a loved one.

The acoustic, woody, percussion-forward sound of ¡Ay!, crafted by Dalt with Alex Lázaro, is a slightly off-kilter mutation of genres like salsa, mambo, bolero, and merengue – the music of Dalt’s childhood in Colombia. Driven as it is by the easy sauntering of brass and woodwinds, double bass and auxiliary percussion, and Dalt’s deft, varied, emotionally rich vocal performance, it’s a joy to embrace, to enthuse about. It’s not work to get into, to experience, to parse. Dalt’s synthetic interventions serve, most often, to accentuate the acoustic components of the album’s sonic palette, providing cool counterpoints that make the warmth of the record seem even warmer. At its heart, this is an album full of hooks, of classic songwriting seasoned with just enough weirdness to keep the freaks interested. But also, y’know, you could play it for your mum.

Not too long ago, I wrote about Ben Woods’s superb Dispeller and tangentially about Yo La Tengo and The Walkmen. And I can’t help but think that, as with those artists, the real strength of Dalt’s work on ¡Ay! lies not in its strangeness but in how deftly it navigates and defines its relationship with the past, while doing something novel in the present, and charting out new paths forward into the future. To me, ¡Ay! has less in common with No era sólida or Dalt’s whacked out and wild collaborative LP with Aaron Dilloway, Lucy & Aaron, than it does with the best Walkmen records or certain of Nicolas Jaar’s recontextualizations or, say, some late-period Tom Waits.

To be sure, there is a strangely Waits-ian quality to great chunks of this record, although I’d bet it’s coincidental, given Waits’s fascination with and plundering of tropical musics and his ongoing collaborations with Marc Ribot. Still, Dalt’s production treatments often highlight this comparison rather than diminish it, as on the wonderful stretch from ‘Contenida’ to ‘La desmesura’ to ‘Gena’, or on ‘Atemporal’. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism – I love Waits. And just as his music has long bridged the gap between benign weirdos and open-minded normies, so too could ¡Ay!.

As I listen to this stunning record over and over, trying and maybe failing to find the words to do it justice, I keep thinking back to that salt mine. I remember the air being almost hot (although a quick Google search proves that memory wrong) and thick with particulate (that could be wrong, too), the salt of the walls cool to the touch. The huge room felt both boundless in the dark and paradoxically confining, so deep within the earth. The place felt outside of time and the place felt like time travel. Carved long in the past, now full of people carving out some sort of future for themselves. ¡Ay! would have been perfect for it.

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