Album Review: Nicolas Jaar – Sirens [30th September 2016, Other People]

It might have been released close to the end of the year, but three months were more than enough to dub Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens one of the best albums of 2016.

We had already had clues when Jaar’s label Other People’s website transformed into a cryptic radio network at the end of the summer, or when the musician took over London station NTS in September for 12 hours to present a patchwork of various musics, songs, speeches, and noises called ‘The Network’. Both media had revealed a very experimental and artsy side of Jaar, already disclosed in his previous works — especially in his project Darkside with Dave Harrington, or in his 2015 Nymphs series of EPs — but here at its highest point. After all, we are talking of a comparative literature graduate who released his first EP at 18 years old, and whose father is a renowned artist; what else could we expect?

Sure enough, the album is a little work of art. We are not talking only of the music, but of how everything is meticulously constructed and put together. From the cover to the title, passing from the lyrics to the order of the songs, nothing is left to chance. Released on Jaar’s own aforementioned label on 30th September, Sirens is a ‘compact’ album, coherent and cohesive. It is like a puzzle Jaar has carefully assembled, and it could not have been different from how it is.

When you press play, roughly a minute of almost imperceptible noise is what you hear first. It seems like someone is approaching, then suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, a glass brakes and music plays. This happens more than once, arousing a sense of anxiety, until the sound gets very low once more to make space for a haunting piano melody, and after a while, an usual high-pitched Jaar’s voice chimes in.

Money, it seems, needs its working class” Nicolas chants. ‘Killing Time’ turns out to be a political song — similarly to, I dare say, all of the tracks on the album. In the background there is a reflection on the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, the latter being the year Jaar was born, but also a general sentiment on what is America right now. The Sirens cover features indeed a photo of Nicolas’ father, Alfredo’s, animated piece ‘A Logo for America’ — which was played on a billboard in NYC in 1987, and it is here displayed in the iconic Times Square —, an artwork reflecting on the usual overlapping of America and the US, as if Latin America did not exist. Nicolas, a NYC-born Chilean, who lives between two identities, is of course sensitive to the issue.

But the political in Sirens’ is tightly intertwined with the personal. ‘Leaves’, ‘No’ and ‘Three Sides of Nazareth’ all feature old recordings of a conversation between baby Nicolas and his father, as a sort of evocative and cryptic introduction to what will be later sung. Personal is also the musical choice made to represent such emotions and thoughts.

Musically, Sirens delves into many genres. One can find piano melodies, punk guitars, powerful beats, noises of every kind, even reggaeton and cumbia. Everything is written, produced and mixed by Nicolas, except for a short segment of music featured on ‘No’ — perhaps the pivotal song of the album (and the catchiest one) — which is a sample of ‘Lagrimas’ by Paraguayan harp virtuoso Sergio Cuevas.

‘No’, track number 4, might be the key to understanding Sirens. Its refrain ‘Ya dijimos no pero el sí está en todo’ (which translates as ‘We already said no, but the yes is in everything’) is also printed on the cover, as if it was not only a reference to the 1988 referendum, in which the Chilean people were called to vote for (sí) or against (no) another eight years of Pinochet rule, at which Jaar hints in ‘No’, but the key to understanding the whole album. It is an ambiguous sentence, that outside of its context could be also understood in a positive way.

Like Sirens, the enchanting mythological creatures, but also the warning alarm, indeed, the album enchants us with its music, but it also wants to give us a ‘History Lesson’.