Nicolas Jaar is usually classified as an electronic musician. But he doesn’t see things that way. “I don’t have any real electronic music influences apart from early [Ricardo] Villalobos,” he once told Interview. “I’ve been very much into instrumental hip-hop, like the Alchemist, DJ Babu, Madlib, J Dilla, ... Ethiopian jazz, Keith Jarrett.” Now working as one half of the duo Darkside, Jaar seems to be expanding into new territory. His latest album, Psychic, colonizes traditional song structure and guitar-rock for its own uses.
Back in 2010, while still in college, Jaar released his full-length debut, the critically acclaimed Space Is Only Noise. His omnivorous appetite for experimental musicians shows clearly on his first album. The vocals usually are deep, dark, and mildly chanted. A violin or a thick, aggressive saxophone appears on occasion, as do weird gurgling noises. Jaar plays with drum textures. His aim was “going against the really fast, harsh techno sound, against the whole clubby aspect of it.” He succeeded.
More recently, working as Daft Side, Jaar remixed the entire Daft Punk album Random Access Memories to make Random Access Memories Memories, stripping away almost all the lush beds of studio-maestro instrumentation and smooth vocals that marked the original. “Give Life Back to Music” becomes a crude beat, while the strutting guitar that drove the first version slowly bleeds in, battling, shiny and airtight, against the smashing percussion that cares little for elaborate technique. While Daft Punk sometimes stumbled over their own grandiosity, Jaar didn’t.
Psychic shows that he is still on the move. “I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to go and make a fucking rock-and-roll record because it fits right now where I am,” he told Pitchfork. This is reminiscent of a comment Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, once made about his album I See a Darkness. Baffled that critics were calling it “folk” or “Appalachian,” he noted, “What the fuck? We made a rock record!” Sometimes, musicians and listeners feel very differently about what constitutes “fucking rock-and-roll.”
Psychic isn’t quite rock, but it does lean more heavily on backbeats, guitars, and occasionally even traditional song structure than any of Jaar’s previous work. The vocals are even clear at times. “Metatron” may be the most straightforward thing Jaar has ever put his name on, with clearly repeating guitar and bass. “Heart” has a raggedy marching guitar part and high vocals – it could have been on an indie record from the ’00s, though it’s not Jaar at his most interesting.
There’s still plenty of the old Jaar floating around. “Freak Go Home” begins with firm drums, though all sorts of other clatters are also interested in laying down rhythm, and there’s a series of electronic noises that might emit from somewhere in a spaceship. The singing is still hard to make out, but “go home,” rings through clearly. “Greek Light” has a weird high tone on it; it could be a flute, it could be something else. “Golden Arrow”, at more than 11 minutes, keeps reaching, a testament to the possibility that slow and steady might win a race.
“Paper Trails” works a handclap beat and bluesy-funk riffs. The vocals here sound like they could be sung by Leonard Cohen: “I want a house to live in / Where are you when I need you?” Jaar told the New York Times in 2012, “You’re not thinking about, ‘OK, this is going to be a hit.’ You’re just thinking, ‘I want to make someone cry.’ That’s all I care about. I just want to make someone feel something.” How he goes about doing that doesn’t really matter.