Sound the Alarm: Nicolas Jaar and the Politics of Dance Music
Pitchfork's Andy Beta talks with Nicolas Jaar in honor of his new album Sirens, which is both his most political and personal work to date. Referencing the state of the country, his father's work and his heritage, Sirens proves itself to be an album that can't be ignored this year.This article originally appeared on Pitchfork
Inspired by the galvanizing work of Kendrick Lamar and others, the producer’s new album Sirens mixes the political and the personal into an eclectic statement of purpose.
“Meet Nico at the triangle on 66th St. next to the head.”
So goes the cryptic message from Nicolas Jaar’s publicist, in advance of my meeting with the 26-year-old producer. While hard to parse or plug into Google Maps, the directions seem fitting in this instance, in that Jaar’s own restless muse can make for slippery listening. But when I emerge from the subway station at 66th Street one Tuesday at dusk, such ambiguity becomes clear: The triangle marks the intersection of Broadway and Amsterdam on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the head is a bronzed bust of a famed early 20th century tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Nondescript in an Under Armour cap, olive tee, khaki pants, and a pair of camouflage Crocs, Jaar could still pass as a particularly devoted music student about to take in a performance at nearby Lincoln Center.
But for the past eight years, he has occupied a rare spot in American electronic music, a vanguard talent constantly nudging toward wide acceptance. He’s popular enough to headline festivals while never giving in to bigger trends. Ever since he released a string of singles and his 2011 debut album Space Is Only Noise while studying comparative literature at Brown University—turning him into an in-demand DJ before he was legally allowed to drink—his music has continued to slither away from easy tags. It’s slow and sensuous, bristling and foreboding, noisy and elegant. And with each new release over the last few years, Jaar has expanded his ambitions, moving from the brooding psychedelia of Darkside, his project with guitarist Dave Harrington, to Nymphs, a series of mercurial 12"s, to the noisy and abstract Pomegranates, a 20-track (imagined) score to Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 avant-garde film The Colour of Pomegranates, to the (legit) soundtrack for Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning 2015 film, Dheepan.
Now comes Sirens, with its cover art obscured like a lottery scratch card. Take a coin to that silvery surface and an old picture of Times Square becomes clear. But it’s not just any old picture. It’s a photo of the animated piece “A Logo for America,” which was created by Jaar’s celebrated Chilean visual-artist father Alfredo and played on a billboard in the middle of NYC in 1987. “A Logo for America” calls into question the way many people think of the United States as “America,” implying the erasure of Latin America. “It would be like the French calling themselves ‘Europe,’” Alfredo once told The New Yorker. The Sirens cover focuses on a particularly powerful still from the piece: an outline of the U.S. with the words “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” on top. The image’s confrontation of identity permeates the album, which is now streaming in full at Jaar’s site.
Though Sirens references current issues—“It’s hard for me to not make a record about America right now,” says Jaar—it’s not the type of thing that will turn into a relic following Election Day. The record is Jaar’s most political work but also his most personal as it strikes a masterful balance between several sonic and emotional crosscurrents...