A coin sits on a hospital-grey album sleeve. What to do? Anyone that has had the fleeting anxiety when thumbing through a couple of fresh scratch cards knows. Like a chisel or a paintbrush, this coin is a tool. The coin scrapes along the sleeve and metallic filings are ripped from their host – revealing beneath a photograph from Chilean photographer and artist, Alfredo Jaar.
Crackling of the vinyl blends with the crackling of the very first track “Killing Time”, in which we are introduced to Sirens through a gentle, simple piano melody. The melody gathers momentum then recedes, gathers momentum and recedes. The ideas of ‘building time’ and ‘killing time’ already offer an insight into the metaphysical depths that Jaar will take us to. Whilst lines such as: ‘We are just waiting for the old folks to die’ tarnish this noir album – a bleakness that persists until the final song. It is a bleakness that really isn’t to be associated with electronic music. Jaar has done something clever here, demonstrating his maturity as an artist, he has broken an artistic boundary.
Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens is all about these boundaries: The boundary between the grey, scratch-card cover and his father’s photograph, the boundary between the physical vinyl crackle and the crackle of “Killing Time”, the boundary between languages, between philosophy and art, and between art and politics. The list is extensive.
Supposedly, a press release names this album his most ‘politically-minded record to date’, and that sounds like a peculiar description of an electronic music album. Listen, though, to the lyrics of “The Governor”. ‘Deicide…Deic…Deicide. Simple and numb, stuck on automatic’ are the opening lines to the jazz-infused track with interspersed sections of growling monotonous bass. Around a quarter of the way into this track, Jaar plays with boundaries again. His vocals swap with the bass as it becomes more animated and his voice repeats in familiar baritone ‘on automatic dial, on automatic…’. One gets the sense of walking into a labyrinthine trap Jaar has elaborately created for us and, as we meet the halfway mark in the song, a scratching, impassioned horn leading us deeper into some dark hypnosis, energetic drums teem just below the surface before it all peters out at around 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
It is with this colour and texture that Jaar commands the space around the listener. Even in the slower and more minimal tracks of the album, “Leaves” and “No”, Jaar fills the air with a weight of trepidation (“Leaves”) or desperation (“No”). Jaar’s music on Sirens is even describable in terms of Fregean philosophy. There is some sense that the music elicits in the listener, a feeling of anxiety or of carefree days (the recordings of conversation with his father as a child exemplify this gloriously). But, what exactly Jaar refers to in his cryptic, and questionably intelligible, lyrics, is difficult to know. The fact that some of the lyrics are in Spanish and some are in English fans the flames of confusion as you try to make sense of the Spanish in terms of the English. Did he sing ‘A pasar’ (“No”) or ‘out of sight’?
Perhaps the most politically charged track of all, “Three Sides of Nazareth”, is also the most haunting. With the lines ‘I found my broken bones by the side of the road’ on eerie, monotonous repeat, and the same bass from “The Governor” rearing an uglier head, this track seems all too familiar. Three and a half minutes in, and the drums are drawn out and padded with some sort of choral vocals. And almost without our knowing, Jaar has pulled us from a shamanistic beat into a euphoric chorus – the collective voices seeming to repeat a small section of Barbor’s “Adagio for Strings” – before we hear something resembling white noise, with sparse piano notes overlaid. A little too predictably, Jaar reintroduces that bass. And, again somewhat predictably, ‘I found my broken bones by the side of the road’ heralds the reintroduction of the drums. An insignificant noir soundtrack sees “Three Sides of Nazareth” fade to its conclusion underneath Jaar’s fragile soprano: ‘of all that he knew’.
It is at this point in the album that I began to question whether this should be remembered as art, or as propaganda. Jaar clearly wants us to question the political systems we have in place. With the continual Chilean-Spanish dialogues, he seems to draw our attention to Chile’s Pinochet days (he stepped down the year Jaar was born following a 56% vote for his 16 and a half year reign to end). And, certainly, such a prompt to question the powers that be could not have come at a better time for Americans. But, it is at this point in the album that I begin to feel concern that it is too ambiguous for propaganda and too predictable (towards the end) for art.
“History Lesson” changes that. It turns out that art and propaganda are not mutually exclusive. The completely unexpected Doo-wop style, with a return for Jaar’s uneasy soprano, immediately engages. ‘Chapter 1: We fucked up’: Jaar begins to recount a history lesson that, as we progress through the song, we realise is a narrative of two histories. ‘Chapter 5: We lied. Chapter 6: We’re done’ marks an end that not only summarises the history of political systems, but also succinctly reviews the messages in Jaar’s own songs on Sirens – the history of his own album. ‘Chapter 6: We’re done’ is simply a reflexive statement before the end of the song. Except it isn’t the end. Throw everything I said about predictability out of the window. What happens for the last minute is almost indescribable – it is as if Jaar has plucked sounds and noises and waves of energy from somewhere. With them, he creates a room of emotion, completely overwhelming the listener. And this is his grand ending – the final great boundary to break: that between art and observer.
Written by George Green