Music

Nicolás Jaar's 'Cenizas' Is a Woozy, Ambient Masterwork

Cenizas is the sound of Nicolás Jaar skirting around the edges of his own sound—skeletal, stripped-back, examining the little things that made his music so great to begin with.

Cenizas
Nicolás Jaar

Other People

27 March 2020

As far as electronic music goes, it's tough to find a bigger name these days than Nicolás Jaar. He headlines festivals; his albums routinely make best-of-year lists in mainstream journals; he won the Palmes d'Or at Cannes 2015 for his soundtrack to Dheepan. How has he done it? Jaar's music has a human touch, a groundedness, that many of his counterparts lack. It's weird, it's wonky, but it never sounds manufactured or robotic. It's not about shocks and jolts. String and brass instruments are as essential to him as synthesizers. His vocals—alternately sung in Spanish and English—play a central role in his music, making it accessible to listeners outside the IDM/electronic world.

On Jaar's latest LP, however, the "groundedness" is more literal than it's ever been. The album's title, Cenizas, is Spanish for "ashes" or "cinders". There's a track called "Rubble", where, on top of a sax solo, we hear the sound of actual rubble falling. There's another entitled "Mud", where Jaar sings, "And no one could hear / The cry from the ground", followed by a three-fold repetition of "There's something in the mud". His singing, here, bears a submerged quality, like his voice is struggling up from under the instrumentation, or underground. This phenomenon crops up often on Cenizas. It makes for a more subdued listen than most of his recent music.

But don't be mistaken: Cenizas may not go harder than Jaar's previous records, but it does go deeper. This is a somber, murky record, for late-night car rides rather than the club. It's less immediate, less punchy than albums like Sirens and Space Is Only Noise. There are no dancefloor bangers, in the manner of Jaar's recent work as Against All Logic (his other alias). Only two tracks are what you'd call beat-driven: "Mud" and "Faith Made of Silk" (and those two are hardly what you'd call "clubby"). Cenizas is an album that prefers to hover on the fringe of things, woozy and ambient, dangling us over an abyss but never quite dropping us in.

Take, for instance, the chilling opener, "Vanish". Here, Jaar opens things with two minutes of a gothic, sinister pipe organ, followed by an eerie vocal harmony where Jaar sings, "Say you're coming back" over and over. Or "Agosto", where ominous reed flutes play over a choppy piano that seems too nervous to know what to do with itself. On "Xerox", Jaar sings—or, rather, croons—in a foreboding, wordless baritone amidst dulcimers, piano, and distant bagpipes. It's a song that calls to mind early 2010s Swans more than anything in Jaar's back catalogue.

Most of the vocals here are wordless, or almost unintelligible, and Jaar generally eschews melody for mantra. That gives the album a primitive, elemental feel like it's the soundtrack to some ancient tribal religious ceremony. Jaar's music has often had a religious aura about it, but on Cenizas, this aura seems more purposeful than ever. Take "Sunder", one of the few tracks where the lyrics are decipherable. Against a harsh, gradient wall of feedback, Jaar says, "In the words of a prophet, sunder / In the shape of the first and last, sunder / In the springs of the church of sin, sunder / In the blood of the hands that laugh, sunder, sunder, sunder." What prophet? What church? What blood? It's not clear. It's probably not supposed to be. Like most of Jaar's music, it feels too ancient, too timeless, too cryptic, and strange to be "figured out". That's Jaar's great strength; despite the lavish modern production, his songs don't exactly feel modern.

But Cenizas isn't all mud, blood and darkness. The song arrangements here are lighter, more acoustic, and more organic than on any other Nicolas Jaar record. "Gocce", one of the LP's oddest tracks, contains little more than a raw, woody type of percussion on top of a glistening piano melody. "Garden" is perhaps the most minimal piece Jaar's ever written. The whole track is a carried by a simple nine-note piano sequence repeating itself over and over, but each time, the sequence gets a little more reverb-soaked than the last. It's a brilliant move. The effect is that the track seems to be blurring, distorting, as it goes along. It's also emblematic of the album as a whole: Jaar, here more than ever, does so much with so little. He doesn't need slamming four-on-the-floor beats to make a great album. He doesn't need shocks and jolts. Cenizas' minimalism is its strength.

That being said, Cenizas' minimalism, and lack of groove, makes it less accessible than your usual Jaar recording. For that reason, it may not be the best record for winning over new fans. Listeners who prefer rhythm to texture, and melody to atmosphere, may find this LP unsettling. But for the initiated, Cenizas' mystery, its utter remove from modern electronic music, is what makes it so great. It's the sound of Jaar skirting around the edges of his own sound—skeletal, stripped-back, examining the little things that made his music so great, to begin with.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".

Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.