Like his one-time collaborator Brian Eno, the prodigiously talented Nicolas Jaar possesses a rare sense of texture and space that makes his music especially tactile. He channels this skill brilliantly on Sirens, his second-full length album. Shifting modes from calming, spiritual ambience to corrosive, industrial-inflected dance music, Jaar mirrors the elemental uneasiness that many of us are feeling this year. Of course, Jaar is not alone in this, as 2016 has been rife with similarly conflicted releases from major artists like Kanye West, Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Solange, and Bon Iver. Yet, Sirens might very well be the best of all of them.
Siren’s six songs travel further in a little over 40 minutes than most artists do in their entire careers. Its ten-minute opener, “Killing Time”, starts with tinkling bells over an ambient landscape that eventually evolves into a funereal dirge that makes prominent use of Jaar’s delicate voice and climaxes with agonized choral singing in its spacious, piano-driven second half. It might be some of the best use of space this year; sounds butt-up against each other from the opposite channels of the mix, creating a symphonic, multi-layered experience. The song never fully resolves, instead privileging forward movement.
This operating principle continues throughout the album, maybe most powerfully on Siren’s two Suicide-influenced epics, “The Governor” and “Three Sides of Nazareth”. Both tracks are masterful pieces of amalgamation, melding industrial textures to pop sounds. “The Governor” features thick pulsing synths and clattering drum ’n’ bass percussion straight from Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album. Dissonant, saxophone-like tones enter at the song’s midpoint, further adding to the chaotic atmosphere. It’s only when jazzy piano chords enter near the end that a sense of balance is restored. As for “Three Sides of Nazareth”, it’s grander in scale, featuring with synths and beats that could soundtrack a police chase and the album’s most existential lyrics. About four and a half minutes in, the song shifts gears into a beautiful ambient passage that feels like a dream. Over a bed of distortion, falsetto vocals and pianos enter, lulling us; however, this reverie is disrupted when the distant voice of a news reporter interrupts and the song returns to its industrial center. The track even ends with a long fade into nothingness as a soft-edged EDM-style breakdown exhausts itself.
The most dance-centered song on the album is the beautiful “No”, which cruises on a Cumbian-styled beat and features lyrics that are sung entirely in Spanish. More than any other song, “No” reveals Jaar’s deft touch with any sound that he wants to tackle. The track is delicate yet forceful; fleet-footed enough to make you dance, but light enough to make you dreamy. It’s lyrics reference the Chilean “No” campaign from 1988 (which aimed to unseat dictator Augusto Pinochet). The songs asserts that even through voting for the negative, we are active. One can imagine that Jaar calls back to this movement from his home country in response to the isolationist and xenophobic ugliness in much of the world right now. “No” is preceded by the curious, but still important “Leaves” — the album’s most ambient-leaning and least coherent track.
“History Lesson”, the conflicted closing track, rides a submerged doo-wop pulse while Jaar sings in falsetto, backed by other multi-tracked falsettos. It’s a tongue-in-cheek move, making jokes out of disgust and reminiscent of The Mothers of Inventions’ satirical take on the genre in the mid-‘60s. The lyrics are simple, but effective:
Chapter one: We fucked up.
Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again.
Chapter three: We didn’t say sorry.
Chapter four: We didn’t acknowledge.
Chapter five: We lied.
Chapter six: We’re done.
In its final minute, a beautiful, soulful vocal breaks through the din, communicating both hope and exhaustion, ending the album on an impassioned, if completely unsure note. It’s a microcosm of the preceding 40 minutes.
Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens is an album that’s difficult to speak about, or even attempt to critique empirically. Like the work of Tim Hecker or Daniel Lopatin, it feels like a full-formed physical item, something that you have to grasp to reckon with and to understand. While it’s certainly imperfect, its imperfections are precisely what makes it so staggering. Like Radiohead’s twin post-Y2K masterpieces — Kid A and Amnesiac — or Flying Lotus’s jazz-psych odysseys, it strips elements from pop and experimental music and fuses them into a new holistic world. Jaar has been a formidable producer since releasing his earliest singles, but Sirens, more than any other previous release, proves that he is every bit as capable as all the artists mentioned above in creating a true masterpiece.