Siren: ˈsʌɪr(ə)n, noun: “A device that makes a loud prolonged signal or warning sound.”
Nicolas Jaar is something of an enigma. Ever since 2008’s Wolf + Lamb release The Student, produced when he just 17, the Chilean-American has built up a prolific collection of EPs and two critically acclaimed albums, Space is Only Noise (2011) and his latest, the highly anticipated Sirens (2016).
Since his breakthrough debut, Space is Only Noise (2011), which scooped Album of the Year in both Resident Advisor and Mixmag end of year lists, Jaar has spent his time building a ferocious reputation for composition; crafting the soundtrack to Jacques Audiard’s Cannes 2015 Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, as well as a re-score of 1969 avant-garde film The Color Of Pomegranates released as Pomegranates (2015). As well as the release of a number of equally commendable EPs including 2015’s trilogy Nymphs II, III, and Fight (Nymphs IV).
Adding a contrasting complement to his closed-door competence in production, Jaar’s live performances have also evolved in maturity; his famous 5-hour sets have become a staple of the Nicolas Jaar live experience with 2012’s concept performance entitled From Scratch, in which Jaar sampled records he had bought that day in front of a live audience, illustrating the true prowess of the New York-based artist’s musical depth.
Coupled with the workload of full-time production Jaar has expanded in other areas of the industry, setting up his own label, Other People, which boasts the likes of Lydia Lunch, and William Basinski on its books.
And now, Sirens.
The album is Jaar’s most intellectual and expository work to date. It is also his most political.
The record is drenched in symbolism and metaphor, held up as a musical-mirror to the current political flux existing in his native America and the wider world. Through a scattering of audio samples from a home video, capturing a two-year old Jaar talking with his father the day before he left for Chile, the album reveals a personal history that is both relevant and significant to understanding the album’s conceptual totality. Jaar was born to a Palestinian-Chilean father and French-Chilean mother in New York, when he was three years old he moved to Chile with his mother and for six years the family lived apart.
These samples are placed throughout the album with the most explicit metaphor appearing on the track “Leaves” in which Jaar and his father talk about a statue that is too large to be killed, a direct reference to governmental hierarchy.
On the progressive 11-minute opener “Killing Time” Jaar begins with his beloved piano. A sprinkling melody is backed by wind chimes and the emblematic sounds of flags blowing in the wind and the shattering of mirrors. From Jaar’s lyrics it is clear the song is about society’s degenerative attitude towards time – what have we changed?
“I think we’re just out of time / Said the officer to the kid / Ahmed was almost fifteen and handcuffed.” A reference to Ahmed Mohammed, the fifteen year old arrested for making a home-made clock in 2015.
The following track, “The Governor”, kick starts a higher tempo and for the first time we hear Jaar’s trademark drum arrangements come into play. The pulsing chorus “Your whole ride is set on automatic dial” is an obvious nod to the capitalistic tendencies of the individual but also a framing of the failed justice handed out by those who possess power.
The third track from the album, entitled “Leaves”, is altogether more subtle and pensive. Opening with a scattering of pizzicato strings before entering a darker realm of electronic glitches and humming bass, the track is light and dark in a pure dichotomous form. Again, the “young Nico” audio samples play adding a nostalgic layer to the airy composition.
On “No” the matter-of-fact baritone vocals complement the marauding drums as they pillage forwards and upwards. The track is permeated by crackling effects and harp-like strings before a breakdown into something much darker. The track is unmistakably Reggaeton, but Reggaeton like you’ve never heard before.
The penultimate track on the LP, “Three Sides of Nazareth” is perhaps the most urgent and insistent. The shift in tempo grabs the listener by the throat, peaking your attention and maintaining eye contact with you for the whole 9-minute run time. “I found my broken bones on the side of the road” Nico sings before the track disintegrates momentarily into a punctured and fragmented soundscape carried by soft piano chords.
The final track on the album, “History Lesson” is a perfect summation of all the themes explored on the record. A slow waltzing instrumental backs the soulful falsetto vocals, holding your hand as we are led out of the dark and towards a hopeful horizon. The lyrics of the song are worth printing in their entirety:
“Darling / You’re late / For your history lesson / Don’t you worry, I’ll give you my notes
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 / Oh but baby / Don’t you decide it?”
In this epoch of political flux and social divisiveness, music should have more to say. In Sirens, Nicholas Jaar delivers a collection of tracks that are both compelling and aesthetically inviting. These are not the political demonstration songs of old. This is a new type of political song-writing, one that utilises audio samples, sound effects and structural components to send a message.
Akin to the politically-charged thread that underlies every track on the album, Jaar, as an author, never appears at the forefront, nor does he take a back seat. His talent exists in the spaces, in the silences, and in the subtleties that permeate his compositional work.
Sirens is available now on Other People.
The deluxe vinyl edition of the LP comes in a particularly interesting format, check it out here.