, October 12th, 2016 12:56
Plastered in bold white letters on the cover to Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens are the words “YA DIJIMOS NO PERO EL SI ESTA EN TODO” - which translates as “We already said no, but the yes is in everything” – making clear, before even a sound is heard, the phrase’s thematic significance. Taken in its historical context it underscores the subtle, constantly political bent of the Chilean-American’s work; it refers to a phrase used by young Chilean artists and activists in the late 1980s, highlighting the contradiction inherent in the fact that to vote “No” was to answer “Yes” to the question of ousting military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Sirens, above all, is a musical and political exploration of this contradiction—of the division between “yes” and “no,” past and present, Chilean and American, curator and composer—and the creative possibilities that open up in the space between.
Since his 2011 full-length debut, Space is Only Noise, Jaar has made introspective music that looks outward from its dance roots. This is pastiche at its finest: he regularly incorporates genres and influences ranging from ambient soundscapes to psychedelic krautrock-inspired vocals and repetition. This approach to music is never more evident than in his 2012 BBC Essential Mix (later named Mix of the Year) in which his eclecticism, bouncing between the likes of Jay-Z, Aphex Twin, Beyonce, and Charles Mingus, established him as an artistic and curatorial mainstay in the dance music scene.
If the BBC Essential Mix was a showcase of Jaar’s diverse and consistent taste, then Sirens is a reminder of his ability to synthesize these seemingly disparate elements. Sonically—and I mean this in the best way possible—Sirens is all over the place. The first real musical “stuff” of the album, after about three-and-a-half minutes of breaking glass punctuated with improvisatory piano noodling, is typical Jaar fare; reverb-heavy vocals and percussion are gradually introduced into a minimal, repetitive piano theme. Fast-forwarding to ‘No’, arguably the most distinct “song” on the album, Jaar enters a totally different world. The vocals have switched languages from English to Spanish, while the piano is replaced with syncopated, Cumbia-invoking dance beat. Meanwhile, ‘Three Sides of Nazareth’ could pass as gritty, cynical new wave while the closing track, ‘History Lesson’, is almost comical in its doo-wop tendencies.
While some of this synthesis does happen musically—heavy reverb persists throughout, as well as vocals that always seem stuck between background and foreground—the glue that holds this album together is its politics. And these politics are synthetic in every sense: trans-cultural, trans-historical, and truly global.
Lyrically, ‘Killing Time’ opens the album with “I think we’re out of time/Said the officer to the kid/Ahmed was almost 15 and handcuffed,” (an explicit reference to Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old high school student detained last year for building a clock in school) immediately invoking the divisiveness of American racial politics. Before long, Jaar brings us to Pinochet-era Chile, where he introduces the aforementioned rallying cry, “Ya dijimos no pero el si esta en todo,” and concludes, rather hopelessly, “No hay que ver el futuro/Para saber lo que va a pasar,” which loosely translates to “You don’t need to predict the future/To know what will happen.”
If these hops and skips between America and Chile and between past and present seem a bit surreal, well, that’s because they are. Taking this jumbled sense of space and time in stride, ‘Leaves’ is filled with Impressionist meandering. Jaar again inserts himself into the album’s narrative through a recording of a conversation between his (unbearably cute) childhood self and his father, which recounts a dream-like story of personified statues and ferocious lions.
It is in this emergent, slightly surreal space between music and politics that Jaar’s syncretic talent shines through. Just as the ambiance and dialogue of ‘Leaves’ work in tandem to paint a dream-like picture, the music and politically-sourced lyrics of ‘No’ invoke a disillusioned Pinochet-era Chile. The (usually festive) Cumbia-influenced dance beat is slowed down, taking a sinister tone when combined with the outcries of disenfranchised Chilean youth.
Drawing together swaths of varying musical and political source material, Sirens seems to paint a bleak, and sometimes even surreal picture of the human condition. Its narrative, peppered with experiences from Jaar’s own divided life, hints at an element of futility in the hope that humans can, even in our rapidly globalising world, overcome their racial and political differences. That is, until the poignant cohering moment in the album’s aptly-titled closing track, ‘History Lesson’. Here is Jaar’s lesson:
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.
Not just a testament to Jaar’s uncanny ability to unify disparate musical influences, Sirens’ subtle yet incisive politics cut deep into our divided post-Brexit, Trump-riddled world. Yet, in the final seconds of the album, and in its most powerful rhetorical moment, the now-mesmerizing doo-wop breaks apart and Jaar’s distorted vocals inquire, “Oh but baby, don’t you decide it?” Always the introspector, Jaar leaves us with a tentative glimmer of hope in a world where history seems doomed to repeat itself: the question of “yes” or “no” might seem perilous, but what lies in between might just pull us out of our rut.