New album by Nicolas Jaar – Sirens [2016]

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.
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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.

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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.

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