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.

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.