It was 2011 when a 21 year old Chilean-American boy named Nicolas Jaar, after several EPs and remixes that made him well known in the underground dance scene, released his first LP, the critically acclaimed Space Is Only Noise, in which he drowned the sounds of left-field EDM in an abyss of slow ambient atmospheres. It’s a complex but also accessible record, where the strong, repetitive, tech-house sounds and tempos of Jaar’s productions between 2008 and 2011 become much slower, less concrete, almost ethereal. The listener has, in fact, the impression to be closer to those material, powerful sounds he is used to hear, but at the same time, thanks to the ambient touch shading them, he is never being so far from them. Space has turned into noise, which the listener can perceive but not touch. And this process is continuously reversed from one direction to the other throughout the whole record, like a sort of scientific experiment, with no other concern but sounds and the different ways to combine them. The record is like getting lost in another world, as for the listener as for the artist.
With his second LP (or third if you consider 2015’s Pomegranates), released the 30th of Septmber, Jaar decides to walk on a completely different path: Sirens is, in fact, an intimist and political (but not polemical) record starting by its cover, which features, hidden under a layer of scratchable lottery paper, a picture of A Logo For America, an animation for an electronic billboard in New York City’s Times Square, realized in 1987 by Nicolas’ father, the architect and visual artist Alfredo Jaar, to criticize the ethnocentrism of the United States and how it implies the erasure of Latin America as part of the continent.
Signs of this change of route are to be searched in the Nymphs project, a series of four singles the Chilean-American producer released between 2011 and 2015, and in the Pomegranates LP, an alternative unofficial soundtrack he made for the 1969’s movie The Color of Pomegranates by the Russian-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov, a celebration of the Armenian culture’s survival trough the narration of the life of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Two works that, as stated by Jaar himself in an interview made for Pitchfork magazine, are “very private, intimate music[…] ”, and form a sort trilogy with Sirens, which adds to the intimate atmospheres of the Nymphs series a political consistency that was lying silent, still in gestation, in Pomegranates. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the previous experience of Space Is Only Noise is erased, on the contrary, with Sirens the New York-based composer concentrates the entirety of his musical and lyrical skills in six alchemical tracks, showing he has reached a higher level of maturity.
The first track of the record, “Killing Time“, is, in fact, close to the atmosphere of Space Is Only Noise, but there is a particular patience in the way the song proceeds, a major complexity. It starts with the feeble noise of a flag waved by the wind, going solo for almost a minute, when, suddenly, a dreamy grand piano makes its entrance over the sound of fragile, glassy objects colliding between each other, echoing, almost as if they were also waved by the wind, which is still setting the flag in motion in the background. There is no trace of adrenaline in all of this, yet it doesn’t sound placid at all, it is like being in a temple witnessing a ritual only trough hearing.
Then everything, except for the wind and the flag, turns silent again, but not for long, since the grand piano comes back, this time in a less sudden way, waiting for the phantasmal voice of Nicolas to sing, while a slow, shaded drum arise in a ceremonial way, and the background is crowded with fading rustles. Referring to facts and people of present history, like the Ahmed Mohamed clock incident and Angela Merkel‘s position on immigrants, the lyrics create a contrast with the atmosphere of the song, but the balance is restored as soon as Jaar sings “We’re just waiting for the old folks to die/We’re just waiting/For old thoughts to die/Just killing time”, which the music transforms in an informal prayer of change.
And although silence seems the only possible conclusion to this sacred overture, the second track, “The Governor“, breaks trough with a synth bass and a grand piano sampled from “Myself When I’m Real” by Charles Mingus and everything turns jazzy. But even this moody jazz atmosphere is overturned as the jungle drums kick in, creating a frenetic sense of anxiety that matches perfectly with the oppositions present in the lyrics, which paint our society as a contradictory “wheel of loss and desire”, completely out of control. This uncomfortable sensation is strengthened from the dissonant saxophone solo and from the piano sample rising again while the drum kick fades in a last change of tempo that leads to the “Leaves“ intermission.
Nicolas transports the listener to his childhood thanks to a recording of a conversation in Spanish between him and his father, Alfredo, about a statue being attacked by a lion. The past is also the dimension of the fifth track, “No”, in which the baritone voice of Jaar and a Chilean harp, sampled from “Lagrimas” by Sergio Cuevas, ride a reggaeton beat. Like in “Mi Mujer” and “El Bandido“, the lyrics are in Spanish, but “No” is not written for the amuse of Nicolas’ mother. It recalls a particular event of the Chilean history, the 1988 referendum, in which the citizenship was asked whether Chile should be continued to be ruled by the dictator Augusto Pinochet or not. Remembering the plebiscite and its results, Nico reflects on the possibility of real change in history, in fact, even if the people voted “no”, meaning a “yes” to democracy, and ended Pinochet’s dictatorship, the tyranny was still present in Chile, only under a different form: “Ya dijimos no/Pero el si està in todo” (We say no/But the yes is in everything). The songs ends calmly with another recording of little Nicolas and Alfredo talking, but this stillness is crushed from the post-punk drum and the distorted bass of “Three Sides Of Nazareth“, the record’s fifth track, a Sucide-inspired song ,similar to the Governor for its continuous changes from aggressive sounds and tempo to meditative piano break, and its hermetical lyrics about the difficulty in finding the truth, ideologically speaking, in this world, and how searching for it ends with nothing more than “broken bones on the side of the road”. Ending as “Killing Time“ started, with the noise of a flag waved by the wind, “Three Sides Of Nazareth” sounds like the conclusion of a circle, making the last track of the record, “History Lesson“, a sort of post scriptum to the rest album. A colloquial message of hope in the form of 50’s slow-ballad, in which is remembered to the listener that, although humanity has “fucked up” over and over trough history, he, as individual has the responsibility to decide whatever humanity is “done” for or not, in a final change of tone and atmosphere.
Trough this asystematic work, the Chilean-American composer shows that he has a perfect knowledge of his own palette and the way to play with it, although the novelty of the record is more lyrical than musical. Nonetheless, Sirens is an excellent record that musically shares Jaar’s personal vision of politics and history, both past and present, but it’s not an essay rather an open stream of consciousness. Like the mythological sirens, the record has an amphibious nature and ends up mixing the opposites, both lyrically and musically, constantly diving the listener into meditative, ambient atmospheres just to waking him up with frenetic drum loops. It is Nicolas’ way of creating a dialogue and its up to the listener to answer to his call or not.
Full listen on Spotify below: