This one details the passing of time: "The past is thirsty, and the present is an athlete with no feet." Do you like it? How about this one? "In the branch of hell, there are no windows." You get it? It's about a kidnapped girl in a dark room; her "hell" has no windows, because it's all dark, get it? And "the girl doesn't know that God also makes mistakes," because the kidnapped girl doesn't know that God, well, he's only human.
You don't think my lines are all that original? Well, don't blame me. I didn't really write them. They come from Guatemala's Ricardo Arjona, an excellent guitarist and singer and potentially a great songwriter. He gained notoriety in 1990 with a song that opened with the claim, "Jesus tuned up my guitar." The song and album were named Jesús Verbo No Sustantivo (Jesus Verb, Not Noun). Arjona is the king of sophisticated cliché. His ballads are predictable, his rockers Jurassic, filled with corny 1980s guitars and synthesizers. His attempts at string quartet and wind sections, whimsical and disposable.
Yet the state of Latin pop is so troubling, someone like Arjona can sell millions and be embraced not only by the masses but also by a sizable portion of the serious music elite.
Arjona has even drawn comparisons to Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, the leaders of Cuba's brilliant post-revolution Nueva Trova movement. Now people are beginning to call him "the Latin American Dylan." Poor Bob. Milanés even invited Arjona to sing a duet with him on one of his records. But Arjona definitely ain't no Silvio. Santo Pecado is nothing more than the latest in the Arjona Good Intentions series. (That's another wisecrack, kiddies.)
Ironically, the best moments take place when Arjona doesn't try to say anything. When he plays it simple and gives up the pretentious "let me say something here" bullshit, he's a fine artist. "No Sirve de Nada" ("It's Not Good for Anything"), a ranchera-rock with strings, is a plain love song in which Arjona spent more time on the music than on the lyrics, which thankfully wrote themselves. The result is almost as good as the groundbreaking Spanish version of "El Ultimo Adiós," Paulina Rubio's only worthwhile song. But just before that, he attempts a neo-tango concoction (you need more than a bandoneón for that) and spoils the closing ballad by turning it into one of his trademark pseudorockers. All Arjona needs to be listenable is to say goodbye to Eurovision-like hymns and his other catchy festival throwaways, find the right producer, and dedicate a whole year to reading the sublime lyrics of others. Then there's hope -- maybe.