- Nicolas Jaar's music exists in liminal states. He sublimates rock music into ethereal ambience. He writes songs that hang in the air and transcend conventional structure. It's a talent that makes his music relatable in spite of its fleeting nature, because Jaar leaves enough words blank or spaces empty for you to fill them in. This contradiction—a sort of aloof intimacy—helped make his 2011 album Space Is Only Noise a crossover hit. Since then, Jaar's spent time running his Other People label, playing in the band Darkside, soundtracking films and doing five-hour live sets—pretty much anything other than making a follow-up.
It wasn't until Nymphs II, released last year, that things got back on track. It was a return to the Jaar of 2011, but he wasn't 21 anymore: he'd grown out of the wunderkind reputation he'd carried with him since he debuted in 2008, at the age of 18. What was once tentative turned fully-formed and confident. Two more records of beguiling music followed, and now Sirens, easily Jaar's best work yet.
Jaar says Sirens is part of a trilogy that includes the Nymphs EPs and Pomegranates (his alternate score to the 1969 avant-garde film The Color Of Pomegranates), and the three do share a drifting focus. But it's not hard to connect Sirens back to Jaar's earliest work. It highlights his voice again, as well as his first love: the piano. Piano opens Sirens on "Killing Time," first strewn among wind chimes and then soberly suspended above clanging metal drums. His voice quivers with emotion, dissolving the sense of detachment that makes some of his music feel elusive.
Jaar's familiar baritone surfaces elsewhere, like on "Leaves," a rockabilly number assaulted by a drum kit that sounds like an angry hornet's nest. "No" is a long ephemeral passage of strummed guitar, distorted keyboards, spoken word and Jaar singing in Spanish. It's illusory, but you're completely in Jaar's thrall the whole time, where the beats are like finger snaps pulling you out of hypnosis before you're sucked back in.
"Three Sides Of Nazareth" features one of Jaar's most arresting lyrics: "I found my broken bones on the side of the road." That noir-ish tint colours most of Sirens. It might have something to do with one his recent trips to Chile, where Jaar was asked to perform in a museum chronicling the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Feelings of fear and residual trauma are all over the record in menacing snatches. "I think we're just out of time / Said the officer to the kid / Ahmed was almost fifteen and handcuffed," Jaar sings on "Killing Time," or "We've created a monster and it's ready to build" on "The Governor."
Jaar has described Sirens in political terms, but the album isn't polemical. There's a sense of unease and violence to it, in the way that Jaar works himself into a cacophonous furor or burdens a song's seductive sway with harsh samples. He gets a feeling across rather than a message. That stretches to the album's cover art, which peels off like a scratch-and-win to reveal one of his father's works—a commentary on conceptions of the USA as "America" and how it erases Latin American identity. Sirens ends with "History Lesson," a doo-wop track that feels charmingly out of place. But beneath the sweet tones are some of Jaar's most biting, clever lyrics, delivered as a CliffsNotes summary of a history lesson: "Chapter one: We fucked up / Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again," and so forth. It's abstract enough to intrigue and direct enough to provoke, a thicket of feeling pared down to just a few words.
It's this enormity through economy, the way Jaar can find the profound in the ephemeral, that has defined his strongest work. Sirens is his best record because it's both his most straightforward and most experimental, his densest and lightest. Down to its core, Sirens is a stark record with all the verve of a sweeping opus. It's powerful but ambiguous—neither here nor there, which is where Jaar has been all along.
01. Killing Time
02. The Governor
05. Three Sides Of Nazareth
06. History Lesson