Javiera Mena’s Otra Era is so full of the familiar sounds of synth-pop’s past that she could’ve called it La Década de 1980, were the Chilean indie darling interested in hitching her star to an era-specific sound. But this is an album that’s altogether shrewder than Taylor Swift’s 1989, also released this week, right down to its title; it’s music of “another era,” influenced by ’80s acts likes Lisa Lisa and Teena Marie (with a touch of ’90s house and Miami Sound Machine), but still two steps ahead of what’s contemporary, sounding a lot like the future.
Retro fetishism is never enough for Mena, who counts Grimes among the artists who inspire her. Though, to be fair, 1989 isn’t as purely retro as its title suggests either. Still, unlike Swift, Mena isn’t consolidating her talents in pursuit of a more marketable version of herself; she’s playing to an established strength. Her new album occupies the same space as 2010’s masterful Mena, which opened up the more regionally specific sound of her 2006 debut, Esquemas Juveniles, into an ornate, accessible disco fusion. Otra Era likewise represents an effort at breaking Mena internationally (the singer herself has expressed the desire to move away from Chile), but does so rarely, if ever, at the expense of her ample gifts.
However, that wasn’t always clear. She allows arpeggiating synths and drum machines more agency than ever on lead single “Espada,” teetering toward a commercial dance-pop attack that seemed, at the time of its release late last year, less identifiably her. But as the fireworks finale of a more dense pop album, it offers a punch-up that, say, whispery Mena closer “Un Audífono Tú, un Audífono Yo” lacked. Attention to structural detail is the crucial way in which Mena has improved on her promising past work. The slow songs are deployed more strategically, with “Pide” being the perfect side-one comedown and “Quédate un Ratito Más” offering release before the explosive “Espada.”
That said, the second half of the album is the strongest, in part because it kicks off with the Balearic bounce of “La Joya.” If “Espada” is Otra Era’s sword, then “La Joya” is its shield—a thick slab of impenetrable alloy characterized less by aggression than fortification. One of Mena’s trademark breakdowns reroutes the song’s course into a full-on rave without ever straying too far from its melodic center. Like Swift, melody is one of Mena’s foremost concerns, and it’s difficult to think of a single time this gift has failed her in the span of three albums. Even still, Otra Era has some of her most memorable. “La Carretera” might be her most Latin-tinged song, its flurry of acoustic rhythms ricocheting off the staccato singing, but it registers as a highlight here more so because of its melody, the way Mena can shift the pitch of her limited but expressive vocal and produce a resplendently infectious hook.
Despite music often being referred to as the “international language,” there exists an undeniable ghettoization of pop music, in particular, not sung in English. There are niche exceptions, like South Korea’s booming K-pop scene, but as much as Otra Era, and its stock-house of potential singles, could be South American pop’s coming-out party, there’s also a persistent individuality to the album’s sound, and presentation, that diminishes that possibility some.
In the video for “Otra Era,” Mena is viewed mostly in black-and-white medium close-ups, almost motionless save for mouthing along to the words of her song. A cheesy wind machine, a remnant of the floor-fan video fad from the era this album is tangentially tied to, occasionally blows her long dark hair all about her naked body. When it doesn’t, as during the instrumental break after the first chorus, Mena spends the down time standing still and pursing her lips at the camera, as if trying not to laugh or tell a secret.
This, in a sense, is Otra Era, an album that agreeably splits the difference between commercial ambition and individualism, or, rather, sees no need to delineate a difference, and has a certain knowing air about cracking that code. Perhaps more accurately, this act of almost-comic stoicism is the stance of the Javiera Mena fan, particularly among a growing audience of non-Spanish speakers, who recognize a great talent as much as they do most of the world’s ambivalence to it. It’s a talent that doesn’t need a year, a decade, or a movement to broadcast itself.