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Nicolas Jaar refines craft on ‘Sirens’

| Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nicolas Jaar 'Sirens' webAndrea Savage

Occasionally, an artist will so accurately capture a complex emotional condition in the turn of a simple phrase — be it a line of a stanza, a snippet of dialogue or a song lyric — that one comes to believe that their previous understanding of the condition must simply have been incomplete. The subsequent sense of completeness, delivered through literature, music or any other verbal medium, is one of the greatest forms of artistic satisfaction.

For a musician with such a focus on aesthetic perfection as Nicolas Jaar, it is curious yet appropriate that the sparse lyricism that colors his intricate brand of techno happens to be so breathtakingly poignant. Indeed, if the environments that Jaar meticulously crafts are akin to a collection of curated grayscale photographs, then the voices that inhabit these environments give them their tense and gloomy hues.

This is especially true on “Sirens,” Jaar’s latest studio album. Evolving like a single piece, the words of the record’s climax are printed on its cover and loom over the second half of its narrative, swelling like a cathartic revelation on “No,” the record’s highlight: “Ya dijimos ‘no’ / Pero el ‘sí’ está en todo.” (“We already said ‘no’ / But our ‘yes’ is in everything.”) In the unlikely space of a techno track that veers liberally into musique concrète and modern classical, the epiphany rolls over a slow but thick rhythm as danceable as a loud heartbeat. Coming from Jaar, the aural symbolism is hardly accidental.

Perhaps this is the single feature that sets Jaar apart from his contemporaries: His music is organic and vigorously alive, its lungs expanding, its blood pumping, its mind spinning and distorting the world with fleeting memories that interact with the present moment. While Jaar’s style has always been introspective, “Sirens” is perhaps his most exploratory album to date in this respect.

The record begins, in fact, with the crystalline sound of smashed glass raining over the ground on “Killing Time.” Each subsequent crash finds Jaar breaking down the façade of a world he proceeds to investigate over the course of six tracks, inhabiting the liminal space between internal and external worlds. Indeed, it is hard to discern whether the sound of shattered glass is played forwards or back; this is one of many hints that the record represents a foray into the past.

Between the more upbeat tracks like “The Governor” and “Three Sides of Nazareth,” both of which transmute remarkably vibrant techno from the volatile interactions between his soulful vocals and menacing urban sounds, Jaar sculpts emotionally resonant spaces by placing an emphasis on ambiance and embracing lyrical intimacy. Most of the tracks on the album are punctuated by snippets of chatter between a jovial man and a toddler girl. These reappearing characters may not necessarily be connected to the artist’s life, yet it is significant that all of this chatter is in Spanish — as a Chilean-American, it is Jaar’s native tongue.

It is no coincidence then, that while all tracks have been written exclusively in English, the record’s centerpiece “No” stands as the sole exception; it features some of Jaar’s most personal lyricism and is written entirely in Spanish. While much of the record seems to explore the hazy past, Jaar here sings: “No hay que ver el futuro / Para saber lo que va a pasar.” (“One doesn’t need to see the future / To know what is to happen.”) In the context of the song, the lines describe the inevitability of human contact when faced with mutual desire; in the context of the record, they argue that the future itself lies hidden in the past.

One would hardly expect such an earnest exploration of time within the bounds of a techno record. But by incorporating his familiar brand of healthy experimentation, Jaar effortlessly triumphs at delivering both an exhilarating and authentic work of art.


Artist: Nicolas Jaar

Album: “Sirens”

Label: Other People

Favorite Track: “No”

If you like: Floating Points; Dntel; The Field

Rating: 4.5 / 5

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