In an age of relentless copycats, it has become increasingly rare to find an artist who stays true to their craft while still improving with every release. Nicolas Jaar began his musical career being lauded as a wunderkind of sorts; the critical darling of dance and indie publications alike, at the age of 17, with the release of The Student EP on Wolf + Lamb Records in 2008. Since then, he has founded the now-defunct Clown and Sunset label while in an undergraduate program at Brown University, launched Other People Records, which functioned as a weekly musical subscription service, released critically acclaimed LPs including 2011’s Space Is Only Noise and Darkside with Dave Harrington, all while touring the globe performing both live and DJ sets. This brings us to the last two years, where not only did he compose an original score toJacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winningDheepan, but has released the Nymphs EP series and an unofficial, alternative soundtrack to the 1969 Sergei Parajanov film, The Color of Pomegranates. Both of which he considers to be part of a trilogy of work with his recently released sophomore album, Sirens.
Sirens is decidedly more political than the rest of his discography, something that is immediately present at first glance of the album’s artwork, a photograph taken by Nico’s father, Alfredo Jaar, of Times Square adorned with a neon sign simply stating, “THIS IS NOT AMERICA.” America as a geographical identifier largely tends to refer only to the United States, completely ignoring South America and the rest of North America, which could lead people like Jaar to feel marginalized. The album was undoubtedly inspired by recent trips to Chile, where Jaar is originally from, and the insight gained into the historical aspect of his heritage. He was asked to perform in a museum for former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, where he learned of the “No” campaign to remove him from power which plays out across the album’s artwork, motifs, and especially the fourth track, aptly titled, “No.”
The album opens with a muted sub-bass rumble that is peppered with found sounds and field recordings, evoking imagery of standing still while the world moves quickly past, unobstructed. Intricate shattering of glass punctures the stillness, fractalizing into a million psychedelic pieces while Jaar’s most prolific element, the piano, begins to take center stage. The intro is “Killing Time” until Nico’s starts singing; a slow and soft song about America being stuck while “we are just waiting for the old folks to die.” The 11-minute opener is a classic Nico slow-burner and a fantastic lulling into the world that is Sirens. “The Governor” follows, starting out with a pulsing bassline as the standout feature along with the stately English language vocals. The track quickly divulges into a heady, manic drum and saxophone duel culminating in a subdued piano melody that leads perfectly into the next track, “Leaves.” This track feels like a vignette from the non-existent movie about Jaar’s life, due a combination of the orchestral sounding instrumental, small electronic glitches, and a poignant recording of a young Nico conversing with his father in Spanish. Next up is “No,” a pulsing one-two burner featuring the first recorded instance of Jaar singing in Spanish. The song has a slowed down dancehall feel to it, until it gets warped and twisted digitally in a way only Nico can do, before spinning back into its original groove. The penultimate song, “Three Sides of Nazareth,” is arguably the most upbeat on the record with a high-octane drum beat and bassline reminiscent of speeding down the interstate while blocking everything else out. The repeated vocal lines, “I found my broken bones by the side of the road … I found my broken friends by the side of the road,” are some his best examples of lyricism to date, a morbid statement on what America at large has become. Lastly we have “History Lesson,” which could be Jaar’s warped take on gospel music. The song starts off with organ, slow and woozy, with Jaar letting us know “We fucked up.” It builds and swells and then ends with a triumphant guitar, followed back by the organ and the Siren song is over.
All too often, especially today, music is taken for granted. Being accustomed to the plethora of free music available online and the relative ease of bypassing the purchasing of content makes it tough to appreciate the tireless work that gets put in. This was the first CD I pre-ordered, let alone purchased in 4 years and it was worth every penny. Nicolas Jaar has delivered a wholly different, but worthy follow-up to Space Is Only Noise. Make sure to catch him when U Street Music Hall brings him to the 9:30 Club on Tuesday, November 15, or in a city near you on his current live fall tour.
For a taste of Nico’s music listen to the Nymphs III EP below: