Unpacked: Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens

Nicolas Jaar

Deep in the heart of Nicolas Jaar’s latest album, there’s an extended domestic vignette: Jaar, a small boy, at home with his father, the Chilean visual artist Alfredo Jaar. Their talk, in Spanish, is playful and perhaps inconsequential; its actual content matters less than the way their voices charge the music with a special aura. Here is a tape, the snippet seems to say, rescued from a box long forgotten in the back of a closet; here is a memory brought to the light of day.

It signals the extent to which Sirens—depending on how you count, either his second or third or fourth proper album—is the young electronic musician’s most personal recording yet. As he explained to Pitchfork, with his previous records, he had taken aspects of his own identity for granted. “But in the months leading up to Sirens,” he says, “there was a lot of change in my life—when you come back from a long tour, you really have to pick up the pieces in a way.”

And the album really does feel like a process of unpacking. It takes stock of the elements that have long characterized his work—the slow tempos, freeform arrangements, and shadowy atmospheres—while confidently pushing into a number of new directions at once. The pensive piano and effects of the opening “Killing Times” give way to a fairly rocking vocal number that sounds for all the world like a cover of the Bauhaus side-project Tones on Tail. “Leaves” incorporates a plucked string instrument—koto, perhaps—with ambient textures in a way that suggests an ambient musician like Biosphere. “No,” the song that features his childhood home tape, taps into a spongy reggaeton beat faintly reminiscent of the Berlin producer Pole’s scratchy ambient dub—though the song’s examination of his multi-national identity (Jaar, whose Chilean parents fled their home country after Pinochet’s coup in 1973, grew up between Chile, Paris, and the United States) also recalls the Ecuadorian-American musician Helado Negro’s own multi-lingual self-portraits.

There are further surprises along the way: “Three Sides of Nazareth” hints at New York proto-punks Suicide as well as the contemporary UK musician Powell—which is pretty funny, because in most respects you’d never think to mention Jaar and Powell in the same sentence. And it ends with a gorgeous, airy doo-wop song that can’t help but bring to mind the Beach Boys’ weightless harmonies. Whatever else Nicolas Jaar may intend with his choice of title, there’s no denying the seductive power of the final song’s ethereal web of harmonies. Like everything on the album, it draws you in.