Nicolas Jaar – Sirens / Other People
Sirens is a thoughtful study in contrasts, both musical and political. It’s only Nicolas Jaar’s second LP, but it is the mark of an enduring electronic composer.
There are only about 45 seconds left on Nicolas Jaar’s new album Sirens when something astounding happens. Heralded by a selection of drums and birdcall synths, a gospel cry arrives, shrouded in distortion and punctuated by sharp arrhythmic drumming. The most useful words to describe this are the silliest and most hyperbolic: awesome, transcendent, timeless or more accurately, out-of-time. It begs for pretension, for the vocabulary of divinity and “high art,” for references to religious philosophers and poets of the West that you barely remember from college, Milton and Kierkegaard, Eliot and Blake. And though there are many similarly striking moments on Sirens, this one stands out for its brevity and particular beauty. It is a moment thoroughly earned by the album that precedes it, and in less than a minute, it’s gone.
This moment—a supernova flash of prodigious skill—can be seen as something of a stand-in for Jaar’s career to date. In 2011, when Jaar was just 21, he released his debut album, Space Is Only Noise, introducing a downtempo combination of psychedelia and dance music that vaulted him into the vanguard of the world’s electronic artists. The record came alive in a room, its amorphous body emerging from the stereo, its limbs unfolding into every corner. His ability to conjure up what seemed like an extra dimension in his music made you aware of the tautology: space was noise, but he made noise seem like space.
The next year Jaar revealed the depth of his talent for collage with his Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1. These mixes are often superlative, but his felt more personal than most, even as it showcased his interest in referencing the texts of others. In one of many sophisticated in-jokes, Jaar, who is Chilean-American, introduced the operative sample from Jay Z’s “My 1st Song,” with Jay Z’s own voice. That vocal prepared listeners to hear the Black Album closer before Jaar dropped the original version, “Tu y Tu Mirar, Yo y Mi Cancion,” by the Chilean band, Los Ángeles Negros, in its place. The mix was filled with moments like these—jam-packed with allusions but still absorbing for those who didn’t catch the references.
And then, Jaar shrank away from center stage. In 2013, he started his own label, Other People, partly to foster the careers of his musician friends. Jaar is a generous collaborator—artists like Dave Harrington, his partner in the duo Darkside, have been eager to credit his willingness to help them with their own work. But the instinct to work with others may not have been purely selfless. Jaar felt enormous pressure to replicate his early success. In an interview with Pitchfork in 2013, he confessed that he was scared of releasing music that wasn’t up to those standards:
“For the first five years of making music, I did it because I had fun,” he said. “When it started to get real, I was like, ‘Now if I put out something else and it’s not as good as what I did before, people will start thinking I suck.’”
So Jaar produced others’ projects and made critically acclaimed records with Harrington under the Darkside moniker. But slowly, over the last two years, he’s been creeping back toward the microphone, using his own name. First there were some extraordinary singles. Then, last summer’s Pomegranates, a slippery alternate soundtrack to an old Russian film. Then Nymphs—an uncollected EP, maybe?—excellent, but difficult to evaluate holistically.
Sirens represents a full reemergence, as close as he may ever get to kicking over the mic stand. He doesn’t reveal many new tricks, but his knowledge of his own palette is masterful in every moment. More poetic and thoughtful than ever before, Jaar maintains an ability to fit seemingly disparate sounds together as if they were always meant to find each other. Add the strands of political expression that are gathered on Sirens, often cloaked in odd textures, in Spanish, or in cryptic lyrics, and you have a record as compelling as any of Jaar’s other works.
It opens with the track “Killing Time,” which feels like entering a labyrinth, or maybe a pyramid, something forbidding and funereal. The sound of a flag waves in the wind, keys like jagged wind chimes shatter on the floor. Nico is patient, but understands the need for progression, and though slower songs like this may linger in silence or briefly lavish attention on a particular effect, riff, or drum sound, they never stop moving.
“Killing Time,” is silent, respectful, matching its lyrics (“We were just waiting…”) And then “The Governor” which shares a post-punk edge with another song, “Three Sides of Nazareth,” jolts the record into sudden motion. Those two tracks, with their driving rhythms and clear lyrics, are the easiest to glom on to on first listen. The words are more or less affixed to the music, in contrast with other tracks like “Killing Time” and parts of “No,” where lyrics seem to dwell in the spacious labyrinth evoked by the sound. On those tracks, you’re never sure exactly where you’re going to stumble upon a sudden string of words, of thoughts.
“The Governor” is fast and loud and urgent. When I listened to it out of sequence, I wondered whether those qualities were imposed on “The Governor” because it’s only fast and loud and urgent in comparison to “Killing Time,” or whether it actually is those things. These are the kind of thoughts that psychedelia provokes at its best, and Jaar adores these puzzles. It’s his obsession with setting up dichotomies and resolving them that places him firmly in a Western tradition. He’s able to work a kind of alchemy upon the raw elements of his music, making one thing into its polar opposite: hard into soft, ugly into pretty, slow into fast. Like the word “sirens” itself, (the ancient temptress, the modern alarms), his music is able to evoke opposing ideas at the same time.
These contradictions give Sirens its strength, particularly during the album’s centerpiece, the song “No.” It’s the only segment of music on the digital version of the album that includes a musical element not written, recorded, performed, mixed, and produced by Nico. (It’s a Chilean harp piece, “Lagrimas,” by Sergio Cuevas.) This section helps us to understand the mystery at the heart of Sirens, represented by the line of Spanish lyrics adorning its cover. The end of “Leaves,” the entirety of “No,” and the beginning of “Three Sides of Nazareth,” orbit around two conversations. The first seems to be a recording of a young Nico speaking with his father, the artist Alfredo Jaar. They discuss a statue being attacked by lions.
The words of “No” are in Spanish, and they contain the second discussion, which serves as a parable that illuminates the first. An unhappy neighbor approaches Nico, and they discuss multiple contradictions—the far and the near, the inside and the outside. But the core of their conversation are the words from Sirens’ cover: “Ya dijimos no pero el si esta en todo.” This translates as: “We already said no but the yes is in everything,” a reference to the Chilean national plebiscite, a 1988 referendum on democracy in the country. In the referendum, on whether Chile should continue to be ruled by General Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power about 15 years earlier, voting “no” was voting “yes” to democracy.
But if, as Jaar sings, “The yes is in everything,” the idea is that we don’t need to see the future to know that nothing ever really changes, that the cycle continues whether you vote for democracy or not. In turn, it suggests that the statue under discussion between little Nico and Alfredo, (whose own complicated politics are worth noting) could very well have been of Salvador Allende, who Pinochet ousted.
There are plenty of extraordinary references on Sirens that I’m sure I missed. But, as with the Essential Mix, as with any collage, being ignorant of any of these things hardly lessens the weight of the music. What you pick up from the album is a real suspicion of power, from “The Governor” (“All the blood’s hidden in the governor’s trunk”) to “Killing Time” (“Money, it seems, needs its working class.”) And at the same time, Nico, through the music, exercises his own power, pulling on his listeners and compelling them to move, dance, think, and engage with one another, or sometimes to sit silently and take it all in.
Nico’s aversion to authority reaches a climax with that last track, “History Lesson,” which ends with those 45 transcendent seconds that I’m still failing to put into words. “History Lesson” takes its cues from old soul and doo-wop, like the Beach Boys at their most psychedelic. Think “Feel Flows” and those unfolding, enveloping missiles of soul.
The music on “History Lesson” is almost laughably gentle at first, and Jaar employs a trick favored by both John Lennon (“Run for Your Life”) and Paul McCartney (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), juxtaposing inviting music with disturbing lyrics. Here’s how his history lesson starts: “Chapter one: We fucked up/Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again/Chapter three: We didn’t say sorry.” And so on. The words are a harsh rebuke of any political system. But the music is tender. And the track is bleak and funny, and naïve and wise, and political and personal. It feels like everything all at once. It feels like Sirens.
ARTIST: Nicolas Jaar
LABEL: Other People
GENRE: Electronica / Downtempo
ORIGINAL RELEASED 2016-09-30
TOTAL TRACKS 6
- Nicolas Jaar – History Lesson (Original Mix) (03:44) 66bpm/Gmaj
- Nicolas Jaar – Killing Time (Original Mix) (11:15) 96bpm/D#min
- Nicolas Jaar – Leaves (Original Mix) (03:30) 0bpm/Dmin
- Nicolas Jaar – No (Original Mix) (06:35) 90bpm/F#min
- Nicolas Jaar – The Governor (Original Mix) (06:50) 80bpm/Cmaj
- Nicolas Jaar – Three Sides of Nazareth (Original Mix) (09:55) 140bpm/Amin
Total Playtime: 00:41:49 min