Review Summary: Nicolas Jaar creates a compelling electronic album by subtly examining political issues.
When we think of “political music," our minds probably generate images of punk rock outfits such as Pussy Riot and the like. Traditionally, protest music has made its mark through sheer volume and aggression. It’s direct, and generally focuses more on the lyrical side of things than the musical.
Knowing this, it’s even odder that the year’s most engrossing political album has come from Nicolas Jaar- an electronic producer known for his subtle, spacey textures and sparse beats. His previous album, 2011’s Space Is Only Noise
, was a deliciously dark collection full of piano twinklings and obscure samples. It felt foreign, strange, and a little distant. On Sirens
, however, Jaar makes a more concise, personal statement while continuing to build on the best sonic qualities from his debut.
The opening track, “Killing Time," feels the closest to Space
in terms of atmosphere. Metallic chimes clink away as the song begins, creating the auditory equivalent of the ripples that form after a skipping stone grazes the surface of a pond. The calming piano loops in the background form a stark contrast with the lyrics. “I think we’re just out of time, said the officer to the kid… Ahmed was almost fifteen and handcuffed,” sings Jaar. (In a vocal style that continues for the rest of the album, he seems apathetic and removed, merely describing what he sees rather than getting too emotional about it.) The lyrics here are perhaps the record’s most abstract. By “killing time," is Jaar referring to the lives of youth snuffed out by police violence" There are no answers given, but it seems likely, especially since the next track, “The Governor” is much more explicit in its message of governmental distrust. Over an uncharacteristically urgent synth pulse, Jaar sings how “All the blood’s hidden in the governor’s trunk… Go ahead and forget, just give us a smile.” The track’s latter half features a disturbing saxophone solo over the sounds of industrial machinery.
The song “Leaves” serves as a bit of an interlude to the album, with calming ambient waves lapping over a father and son’s conversation in Spanish. This track serves as a brief reminder of the humanity and everyday lives of those who live so close to the atrocities described in “The Governor". It also feels like a more personal statement from Jaar, who grew up in Chile soon after the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The fourth track, “No” is a beautifully haunting cut of downtempo dance music that features subtle harp flourishes and Jaar’s best vocal performance on the album. It’s tragically hopeful, and conveys the feeling that perhaps something good can emerge from the surrounding storm of chaos.
That storm comes to a head in “Three Sides of Nazareth” which returns to the driving post-punk feel of “The Governor” and contains the most topical message of the album. Similar to M.I.A’s “Borders” (but with far more eloquence than simply wondering “what’s up with that""”) Jaar contemplates the various sides of an unnamed wall that is surely a reference to the famous U.S.-Mexico border wall proposed by the Trump campaign. “Illuminated minds on this side, doing nothing at all. He said morality is dead on that side, it’s been thrown on the ground on this side… Find them over on their side.” This obsession with divisions and sides is presented in a very negative light, breaking apart the warm feelings of familial love and romance that were presented in the previous two songs. Despite this, the track ends with Jaar in defeat. The wall has been built, and there’s nothing he can do about it…
...which brings us to the final track, “History Lesson," which truly elevates Sirens
to a higher level. In the (most likely ironic) tone of a cheerful Beach Boys/gospel hybrid with an instrumental that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Life of Pablo
, Jaar gives his “history notes” to a fellow classmate, and the lesson reads as such: “Chapter One: We ***ed Up. Chapter Two: We Did It Again & Again. Chapter Three: We Didn’t Say Sorry. Chapter Four: We Didn’t Acknowledge”. The humorous lyrics and light, breezy vibe suggest that in this post-wall world, Jaar has become one of the mindless, authoritarian zombies from “The Governor” who simply smile in the face of a corrupt system. After the “lesson” is over, the drums seem to fizzle out, indicating a strangely anticlimactic, depressing end to Jaar’s tale. But just then, a vocoded cry rises up as the drums grow in volume and intensity. Triumphantly, it asks “But don’t you decide it"” reminding Jaar’s “student” (and the world) that the future is whatever we make of it, despite the best efforts of concrete walls and bloated bureaucrats. It might seem like an exaggerated description of just a few seconds of music, but the final minute of “History Lesson” is truly some of the most inspiring stuff I’ve ever heard.
, Nicolas Jaar paints a vivid picture of our current world, with its fear, hope, beauty, and hatred on display for all to see. Instead of taking a comical, over-emotional approach (such as that of Anohni’s Hopelessness
), Jaar skillfully plays with contrasts and expands his sonic palette in order to give certain moments the weight and drama that they require.
Perhaps the success of Jaar’s subtle political statement is emblematic of what we need in the real world: Less people shouting each other down with noise and drivel, and more quiet, rational voices who bring a sense of genuine passion into the political world.