Brown alum Nicolas Jaar steps up his sound in "Sirens"

Album cover courtesy of Nicolas Jaar

Review by Monika Rajagopalan 

Brown alum Nicolas Jaar broke onto the scene in 2008 with his first EP, The Student. At that point he was already setting himself apart from his peers in the dance music world by employing slower tempos and piano improvisations. He continued producing EP’s through 2011, gaining some recognition in the club world. Also in 2011, Jaar released his debut album, Space Is Only Noise, which marked a venture in a more experimental direction, incorporating more instruments and vocals layered upon a techno base. There is some sense of familiarity that keeps Space Is Only Noise contained and intimate, although that familiarity is sometimes purposefully clouded. Jaar continues to play with and subvert familiarity and expectations on a grander scale in his newest release, Sirens.

Sirens’ opener, “Killing Time,” starts very slowly before unfolding into a tessellation of chimes like shattering icicles. The beauty of the music remains cold and distant until a simple piano melody reaches through and over the rest of the piece, evoking a soft and persistent melancholy. Unexpectedly, Jaar’s vocals appear about halfway into the piece to add a sense of warmth and longing. The total effect is a half-imagined, half-forgotten memory of nighttime snowfall. The lyrics reference Ahmed Mohamed, the fourteen-year-old boy who was pulled out of class in Texas and arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school. “I think we’re just out of time said the officer to the kid / Ahmed was almost fifteen and handcuffed / He was just building his own sense of time,” Jaar sings before going on to make the defeated conclusion that many of us have come to at some point in our lives: “We are just waiting for the old folks to die / We are just waiting for the old thoughts to die / Just killing time.”

Jaar’s agitation with the abuse of power also comes through on “History Lesson,” the last track on the album. The music starts out with a sweetly strident doo-wop sound. Jaar sings an abbreviated history lesson about the dark past of large parts of the world—“Chapter one: We fucked up / Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again,” through “Chapter six: We’re done / Oh, but baby, don’t you decide?” It’s a call against guilt-ridden apathy as much as it is an acknowledgment of the guilt itself. After Jaar sings the last line, layers of sound begin to build and mutate towards a pleasant crescendo, perhaps providing a glimpse towards an uncertain but hopeful future.

While “Killing Time” and “History Lesson” have the most explicitly political lyrics, there is a sense of unease with power, and frustration with apathy, in the lyrics of several other tracks. In “The Governor,” Jaar sings, “All the blood’s hidden in the Governor’s trunk,” and in “Three Sides of Nazareth” he sings about communities divided by their side of the road, where “people get high on this side / While sunflowers turning on their side / But the sun don’t shine on this side / Illuminated minds on that side, doing nothing at all.” While “Killing Time” and “History Lesson” are similar to the rest of the album in their lyrical content, the music on the rest of the album is decidedly more agitated.

“The Governor” starts off as a comfortable, rockabilly jam. This sound is soon woven into Jaar’s more usual dense electronic and instrumental landscape. Tension builds as brass noises strike jarringly over high-energy drums. A simple piano motif eventually manages to calm the adrenaline-pulsing confusion while, analogously, a kick drum heartbeat begins to quiet.

The high energy of “The Governor” is matched only by “Three Sides of Nazareth.” The song starts with an urgent rhythm that remains barely contained beneath Jaar’s sonorous vocals, giving the sense that something is going to burst through. Instead, both Jaar’s vocals and the rhythm fall away and a haunting swell takes their place. That swell is destined never to be resolved, adding to the sense of agitation that Jaar expertly crafts throughout the song.

The shortest track on the album, “Leaves,” is also the most subdued. It introduces a conversation in Spanish between a child and adult--which is, in fact, an old tape of Jaar talking to his father--that continues into “No,” which is probably the richest track on the album. “No” starts warm with a soft pulsing beat and rhythmic drums that leave room for the lyrics, all in Spanish, to come through. But Jaar won’t let anything stay still for long—within a few minutes the song begins to melt into an eerie and ephemeral version of itself, with crystals of morphing sounds replacing the steady beat. Eventually the song regains some composure, but this structure feels strenuous because it’s so rich with underlying activity.

In Sirens, it’s clear that Jaar is frustrated by the way that power is misused, and that nobody is doing anything about it. He brings his personal experience into the political statements he’s making, exemplified not only by the prominent place the tape of his conversation with his father holds on the album, but also by the album’s cover art, which is a lottery-style scratch off that, when removed, uncovers one of his father’s own political artworks. He’s able to craft a musical landscape that reflects his agitation, melancholy, and hope in his most musically skillful album yet.