- The Chilean-American artist explores another bold new direction.
- "He throws me into the mud," reads the Holman translation of Job 30:19, "and I have become like dust and ashes." Job is here a stricken figure—ostracized by a community that once respected him, plagued by disease of both the body and the soul, and, he believes, worst of all, forsaken by God. "I cry out to You, but You do not answer me."
The Bible? Stay with me. "Mud" is the name of the sixth track on Nicolás Jaar's new album, Cenizas, the Spanish word for "ashes." In the final few months of 2019, Jaar staged a sound and light exhibition at Amsterdam's Het HEM, a former munitions factory, inside a 200-meter-long tunnel that was used to test weapons. Moving through the exhibition, as I did in December, it became clear the piece was, in many ways, an examination of the space's significant volume of dust. Mud, dust, ashes.
A reasonable question at this point might be: what's with the Dan Brown-isms? Let's back up. I'm not literally suggesting that Jaar has returned with the first album under his own name in four years and is now dealing in Biblical allegory. There isn't (at least I don't think...) a trail of references to be deciphered like a code. No, I mention this to admit that I found myself considering the theory to begin with.
It isn't obvious if subterfuge and surprise are among Jaar's main artistic aims but, considering what we've heard from him these past few months—and, really, the past ten years—these words jump to mind. A list of highlights from the vast array of projects he'd undertaken in the past couple years is among the only information provided with Cenizas, an album that follows just seven weeks after the release of 2017 - 2019, his second LP as Against All Logic. That record, a collection of direct, distorted club music, was startling in how much it differed from the old Against All Logic material (lots of disco, soul and warmth) and Jaar's catalogue generally. We were left to guess at the significance of the album's cover, a military man on a cellphone, and what might have led to such an abrupt (but very welcome) change of direction.
Now that Cenizas is here, the timings perhaps make sense. From Jaar's early releases on Wolf + Lamb, to Space Is Only Noise, the album that made his name, right through to 2017 - 2019, the contrast and relationship between seemingly opposing sounds has been a constant in his work. Could this also apply to two full-lengths realised under different names? Cenizas is truly an antithesis of 2017 - 2019. The chain of ideas that led me to knowing-jesus.com was inspired by how slow, solemn, devotional and choral Cenizas often is. "Vanish" sets this tone as the opening track, where what could be a pipe organ precedes Jaar's choir-like vocal. There's also the album's acoustics, with recordings seemingly made in chambers or churches. Jaar could be haunting a crypt on "Cenizas." His voice meets cold, damp air and expands in reverb, an electric piano his only friend in the dark.
We haven't had a full-length this sedate since the alternate soundtrack Jaar recorded for Sergei Parajanov's 1969 film The Colour Of Pomegranates, but it's important to note that Cenizas includes some of the strangest sound design he's produced. The question often seems to be: "How can I soothe and unsettle you?" A noise artist would have been stoked to generate a tone as bizarre as that of "Menysid," although it's assuaged by steady drones and voice. "Gocce" means "drops" in Italian, which is as close as you might come to describing the noise that heavily features on the track. The guitar remains calm but the piano can't help but catch the vibe of the drops thingy, expressing itself through erratic glissandos. A similar interplay between instruments known and unknown is at the heart of "Xerox," as piano mingles with spindly sonics. Jaar chants ritualistically over enveloping drones, one of the few times Cenizas appears dramatic and fully animated.
I wouldn't necessarily say Cenizas is challenging, but listeners accustomed to Jaar's more smooth and structured early work may need to persevere as he leads them through this freeform landscape. There are points along the way, however, that will seem more familiar or traditional—perhaps a mood reminiscent of a past album or a more upfront vocal performance. "In the words of a prophet, sunder," Jaar says on "Sunder," one of the only times lyrical content can be discerned. His spoken verses on blood, sin, saints and revenge are at odds with one of the album's most inviting melodies, a line that could have featured on the recent FKA Twigs album, MAGDALENE, which Jaar principally produced. The deeply psychedelic "Mud" along with "Faith Made Of Silk," which sounds like it was made by Nigel Godrich for Radiohead, are the only instances of drums leading the way. Both are superb and temporarily ground an album that for most of its 54 minutes is suspended in atmospheres rich with portent and potentiality.
Cenizas is an LP of significant gravitas from an artist with among the largest and most engaged followings in electronic music. It's therefore perhaps natural to reflect on how it might be processed and understood in this moment of global anxiety. We may currently turn to culture to reassure us or offer us simplifications of reality, and in these respects Cenizas provides more questions than answers. My personal feeling is that's exactly why it's equal to Jaar's best work (Sirens, Space Is Only Noise), a set of artistic decisions that—while very different—are as ambitious and fully realised as those of 2017 - 2019; others, however, may find the energy needed to engage with its mystery less appealing. To those people: perhaps begin with "Garden" and go from there. This has to be the prettiest piece Jaar has ever written, and it consists of little more than a sanguine piano phrase. It's here that the enigma of Cenizas and thoughts of the future may soften, as the sublimity of the present moment rushes in.
09. Hello, Chain
13. Faith Made of Silk