7th October, 2000
We met Guatemalan singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona earlier in 2000 with a beautiful modern-rock (modern for the 90s) ballad. But it was from his last album, and his new album was Galería Caribe, or Caribbean Gallery, a showcase of his versatility with the multi-colored musics of the tropical islands. Or, perhaps, his lack of it.
"Cuándo" (When), for example, is nominally a bolero, the swaying Cuban lilt that became the glory of midcentury Mexican popular song; but while the congas tap out a swaying rhythm, it's an awfully stiff one, practically 4/4, an unadventurousness which clarifies when electric guitars start revving up in the middle eight, and the song reveals itself as just another power ballad wearing tropical-Caribbean clothes. The muted trumpet, the acoustic guitar runs, the swooning strings, and the conga percussion is all beautifully performed and expertly knit together, but underneath it all is a guy in a flannel shirt whose musical instincts never stray far from the repetitive blues-based structures of classic rock.
With that disappointment, it's a surprise that "Cuándo" is still as good as it is, not just as a piece of production, but as a song. Ricardo Arjona can write a smart lyric, as we knew as far back as 1994, and "Cuándo" is a major performance in lyric-writing. The opening lines, "¿Cuando fué la última vez que viste las estrellas con los ojos cerrados / y te aferraste como un náufrago a la orilla de la espalda de alguién?" (When was the last time you saw the stars with your eyes closed / and clung like a castaway to the shore of someone's shoulder) present much more thoroughgoingly poetic imagery than Anglophone pop usually has room for, even beyond the obvious sexual allusions.
The rest of the song turns into rather a scorned-lover diatribe, but Arjona's closer to Dylan than to Morrissette in that category, and if it weren't for his plodding rhythm and rather anonymous voice, "Cuándo" could be a great, rather than just a good, song.