nicolas jaar

Album Review: Nicolas Jaar “Sirens”

An old Greek myth said that the female sirens lured you in like a fish on a baited hook. Ships sailed past the three of them and the men on board were enticed by the beauty of their voices. They were captivating yet dangerous creatures though, and their promise unfortunately far outweighed their reality.

Stranded on the island of Anthemoessa, the sirens lured passing ships towards them with their song. But the intrigued men would then meet a sad demise as they crashed onto the shallow reef in pursuit of these calls. In an album which Nicolas Jaar has openly admitted as being his most “topically cohesive and politically-minded record to date,” it is easy to see this as a potential metaphor for the current plight of his home country of America and also his adopted one of Chile.

“I need context. And I see this as a context record, for context around me and outside of me,” Jaar recently told Rolling Stone.

Sirens is the New York/Chilean producer’s second full-length album, after his first came five years ago in the form of the bewitching Space Is Only Noise. In the intervening years he kept himself busy with a constant stream of releases; be it a collaborative album with Dave Harrington (Darkside), standalone dance tracks (Nymphs), or a reimagined soundtrack entitled Pomegranates for a 1969 Russian avant-garde film. But it is here, on Sirens, where he really delves into the complex contextual and personal matters which have seemingly occupied his mind for some time.

It begins with the sound of a flag waving in the breeze on opening track Killing Time. But given the title and atmosphere of the record it could easily be a ship’s sail flapping in the open air. It seems to be getting closer and closer to some sort of conclusion, but the sound of the sirens never actually eventuate. The shattering of glass sees to that.

It’s a harsh break that ruptures the sombre soundscape that had been building up. But it occurs continually, as if shaking the listener out of the early malaise. The glass could be symbolic of a mirror reflecting all around it. And with its smashing comes the inference that reality has been shattered and the myths that go along with it have been broken too.

The crystal assault then gives way to lonely piano chords that strike out into the unknown. The stop start nature of them underlining the uncertainty that floats all around. After nearly five minutes of constructing his context, Jaar’s vocals finally make an appearance. His lyrics are hard to grasp though as they seem to dip in and out of coherence, almost as if they are getting lost in the wind upon delivery.

However, on his assertion that he’s “just killing time” there is a noticeable surge of clarity to be found in both his voice and the music. Almost as if an answer has suddenly emerged and revealed itself to him. But just when it appears that a solution has been stumbled upon, the track shifts and swerves once again, as it spirals into a  crescendo of voices, before petering out with barely a whimper.

The messy and tangled The Governor then ups the ante as it builds gradually into a collage of noise. The jumbled drums fight against Jaar, as he does his best impression of an 80s synth pop vocalist.

“It was an 80 beats per minute song until I wondered what it would sound like at 160,” he explained. “I was thinking of it in regards to heavy metal and punk.”

The integration of these genres into an electronic producer’s music is an interesting one. The song stands as perhaps the greatest example of Jaar’s willingness to push boundaries and experiment with sounds, but it’s certainly not the only time he does it on Sirens. On No, for example, he incorporates Chilean harp from artist Sergio Cuevas, while the entirety of his lyrics are sung in Spanish beneath a bed of warbled synths.

In the three track run of Leaves, No and album standout Three Sides of Nazareth, home videos capture Jaar in discussion with his father when he was a child. The conversations are in Spanish but digging a bit deeper, political and personal messages can be found threaded through the fragmented components of speech and music.

Adorning the album cover is the Spanish sentence “ya dijimos no pero el si esta en todo.” It is also said during the beginning of No. This can be translated into “we already said no but the yes is in everything.”

It relates to decades earlier when the Chilean people were fighting for their right for democracy. After a coup d’etat had put Gen. Augusto Pinochet in power against the country’s will in 1973, he had been a ruthless dictator until a plebiscite was finally called in 1988.

“A ‘Yes’ vote would mean, ‘Yes, I want Pinochet to stay in power.’ A ‘No’ vote would mean, ‘I don’t want Pinochet in power. I want free elections,’” filmmaker Pablo Larrain explained.

The phrase then can be seen as displaying the dissatisfaction that freedom essentially seems to be but a concept. The belief may be that people have it, however society can seemingly have it stripped away at any moment. People in power can always manipulate outcomes to suit their own agendas, finding a ‘yes’ where it rarely, if ever, exists.

Political statements are packaged throughout the album, concealed at times, exposed at others. The eye-catching album cover may be one of the most obvious, as it features his artist father Alfredo Jaar‘s work.

“This is not America,” it reads on a building at the entry point of 7th Avenue. It’s lost slightly amongst the glaring white glow of a store that promises to sell “cameras, copiers and videos” and the onrushing, oblivious traffic, but it is there. The questioning of the state of reality is something which is important to both father and son, but in Nicolas’ case he seems to find less answers the more he looks.

Chapter one: We fucked up, Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again,” he sings on final track History Lessons. Yet within that and the rest of the tracks, there are no offered solutions. It’s a bleak study in the perpetual cycle of failure both in personal and global matters. Amongst the statements on issues that have plagued the world continually though, there is also parts of Jaar left behind within the music.

“I felt I cannot be talking about me, me, me. Just my feelings, my private things,” he told The Guardian about his reasons behind making Sirens. “After Pomegranates and Nymphs I wanted to really look out. But then weirdly, when I started looking out, I started looking even deeper in somehow.”

As he looked to observe the world as it was around him, he inevitably found himself getting lost within this relaying of information. “If every now and then you feel like you’ve seen it all, then be sure to remember there’s always two sides to a wall,” he poses on Nazareth. Before he declares, “I found my broken bones by the side of the road. I found my broken home by the side of the road.”

It’s stark lyrics like these which convey the emotions of a man struggling to comprehend all that he has witnessed. The switch from third person narrative to first person also showcasing his troubles at exerting his songwriting away from the personal. There is an attempt at detachment, but it doesn’t last for long.

“I’m just not there yet. I failed at doing a combination of ‘looking out,’ still being experimental, and being as emotive as the Nymphs series was,” he admitted upon the release of his new album.

Yet it is this openness to failure that is one of the most intriguing parts of Sirens. It doesn’t judge the mistakes or context around which it was made, it merely reflects them.

You can also read our comprehensive feature on Nicolas Jaar here.

Sirens is out now via Other People.

Image: Rolling Stone