Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Nicolás Jaar Cenizas

Nicolás Jaar wants you to think about what sound is, and contemplate what it can do. Patterns of sounds can fit together to form songs, as the Chilean producer most recently demonstrated via two compilations of sample-heavy floor-fillers under his Against All Logic moniker in the span of about 13 months. But when Jaar puts out a record under his own name, it’s an altogether different beast, steeped in avant-garde sensibilities and guided by self-assured experimentation. In this context, Jaar pushes beyond the realm of song into something more like sound study. His latest LP, Cenizas, out this Friday via his own Other People imprint, manages to be one of his most daring releases yet — and one of his most haunting.

Jaar sets a reverent tone with the opening suite of songs: “Vanish,” “Menysid,” and the album’s title track, which is Spanish for “ashes.” Gloomy woodwinds hollow out an almost holy space for the rest of the album to inhabit on “Vanish,” but it’s one of several tracks that completely transform midway through. Those somber tones drop out; after a brief pause we hear Jaar’s falsetto layered in an angelic chorus, which fades seamlessly to a muted, low-register hum that brings to mind Gregorian chanting at the beginning of “Menysid.” This is where we first hear a sharp static crackle, followed by warbling, submerged bells, chopped into a plodding rhythm that sounds like a rusted machine slowly cranking out its last obsolete product.

“Cenizas” floats softly back into the cavernous sacrosanctity that defines the entirety of the record. Jaar’s hushed Spanish baritone melts into the airy minimalism surrounding it; on previous albums, Jaar might’ve thrown something jolting into the mix here, but instead he lets “Cenizas” drift, exactly as ashes might. Cenizas begins to take shape as an album, but it’s an uncertain one — these might be apocalyptic dirges about the general state of the world, or they might be Jaar’s personal elegies. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Everything on this record is so elegantly rendered that it could be drawn from deeply felt loss, resigned faith, or collective malaise writ large.

There’s always been an underlying mournfulness to Jaar’s work — his father, a well-known visual artist, joked in a 2012 New York Times profile that his collection of records from Portuguese-speaking Africa may have imbued his son with a sense of melancholic longing known as saudade from an early age. Nicolás Jaar turned 30 earlier this year; though his early success in New York’s underground club scene forced him to establish his sense of self in the midst of staggering critical acclaim, he seemed incapable of making missteps. His 2011 debut Space Is Only Noise, written in downtime while he was a student at Brown, cemented him as a techno wunderkind despite having very few clear-cut club tracks. At the same time, he was building his own production house/record label, Clown & Sunset, and headlining an improvised DJ set at MoMA PS1.

While his interests have diverged substantially — Jaar has curated residencies for other sound artists in the West Bank, created large scale conceptual art pieces, scored films, produced albums for FKA Twigs and Buzzy Lee, fronted psych-electro duo Darkside, and released works by Lydia Lunch, William Basinski, Lucretia Dalt, DJ Slugo, and Patrick Higgins, among others, via his label Other People — his vision has only grown sharper and more confident as time has gone on. He’s often said that he came by his love of techno and eventually fell into making music almost haphazardly, but he’s never taken that youthful success for granted. While certainly capable of making bodies move on dancefloors, he never wanted to be pegged as just a DJ or even solely as a producer, instead building his brand as a curator of sounds in whatever form that might take. This was never a reinvention, but a constant, insistent assertion.

Written and produced between 2017-2019 and mixed this year in New York alongside Higgins, Cenizas may be an unexpected opus for Jaar. Eschewing the political themes of his last major eponymous release, 2016’s Sirens, for something more ethereal, Jaar manages to make sounds and textures the point of focus on this release in a way he hasn’t quite managed before. His use of woodwinds is a great example of this — there are those bleak, featherlight tones on the aforementioned “Vanish,” but also the muscular baritone on “Agosto” and the rumbling, reedy vibrato on “Rubble.” In November, Jaar buried 16 speakers in the desert for an installation project, posting two clips on Instagram of dirt and rocks shifting as soundwaves oscillated through the ground. “Rubble” sounds like a hazy, lingering dream of bleating sax blasting through a mountain, complete with the crackle and crumble of a distant avalanche.

Even the straightforward, meditative piano melody of “Garden” is so physical you can hear the depression of the keys working as a kind of percussive element, subtle as a heartbeat but there nonetheless. As the melody repeats, Jaar lets reverb creep in little by little, giving those notes just a bit of afterglow. “Gocce” — which translates to “Drops,” a great example of Jaar’s dry wit — uses a jazzier piano line and even a little fuzzy bass, but takes textural noise in a whole new direction, distorted bongo slaps sounding at times like a clock ticking or a plunger coming unstuck from a wet surface.

Cenizas makes its biggest impact when Jaar’s interest in sound and texture collide with the album’s hymn-like tendencies. Its elusive first single, “Sunder,” is one such track, erupting in a staticky din before squiggling synth patches blur in and out of the frame. Jaar’s characteristic low-voiced murmurs ripple upon one another; he speaks cryptically of saints and bloodied hands, asking, “Do we need to be still?” and repeating “sunder” over and over as if desperate to trigger someone’s ASMR. But the record’s true standout is easily “Mud,” with its plodding drums, buzzing drone, tambourine rhythms, Jaar’s unintelligible moans and shouts, and furtive keys; it feels primal and urgent even as it evolves over seven minutes, eventually tapering off to the emptiness of “Vacíar,” the keening reprise that bridges it to “Sunder.”

Album closer “Faith Made Of Silk” might be the most accessible song here, with its soft organ and muted horn, the percussion almost delivering its skittering promise of erupting into breakbeats but warping into silence the next second. It’s a reminder that Jaar is and always will be unpredictable, dodging clichés almost accidentally because his muse cannot be contained by any one genre.

Cenizas goes further down that rabbit hole of sound exploration than any of Jaar’s previous full-lengths (though Pomegranates‘ sketches come closest). The bombastic party vibes of A.A.L. are nowhere to be found here, but that doesn’t mean Jaar’s sound experiments are less rewarding. Like the contour of a silhouette facing back in on itself that graces the album artwork, this is all part of the same whole. And when Nicolás Jaar turns inward, he’s not looking into an abyss — there’s a temple there, and sonic ingenuity is God.

Cenizas is out 3/27 via Other People.

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