The saxophone is the most recognizable of band instruments. In 2011, Bon Iver’s and Destroyer’s records showcased its uses to millennials. In 2016, it’s grown darker and more jaded in the independent music spectrum. The saxophone takes a song like “The Governor” and turns what could be a dancefloor cut into something decaying and glaring. Stack Nicholas Jaar’s disorienting piano loops on top, and we have something that dodges electronic music precedent in a handful of ways.
The saxophone isn’t the only acoustic instrument revered on Jaar’s Sirens, his first proper rollout since 2011’s mind-bending Space Is Only Noise. There’s reggaeton pop with full auxiliary percussion on “No.” Sung in Spanish, the track references the 1988 election to keep late dictator Augusto Pinochet in office for another 8 years. Leftists and artists subverted a negative word into a positive message that underlies much of Sirens and Jaar’s family history. It’s all kept in peaceful balance with a child’s voice and satisfying lute strums that complement a 21st century hope for Chile.
Seldom does an electronic album open up its doors so quickly. These songs go from divisive to palatable, opener “Killing Time” waiting a full minute before birthing a musical sound: a glass vase falls off a table and reconstructs itself before introducing the gloomiest pianos this side of A Moon Shaped Pool. Funnily, the only sad part is that it ends after eleven minutes.
“Three Sides of Nazareth” has propulsion like a revving engine, but breaks itself up elegantly across its ten minutes with a bridge of white noise and paranoid vocal blips. Following is “History Lesson”, which has romantic and soft words akin to Avey Tare. It’s the doo-wop pillow talk track that Kevin Parker has dreamed of in his penchant for attempting to do psychedelic love as well as The Beatles. Even when Jaar says “we fucked up” about a certain part of his relationship, he does so with a long view that ensures his subject that he’s thankful for shared moments despite relational hiccups. Seven chapters of this tale go by in whimsical summation even though it all ends before the four minute mark. Nailing down Jaar’s thoughts is easiest here, and it’s a lesson to the listener on accepting the impressionistic glow of many of the albums words.
“The Governor” opens with two utterances of the word “deicide” before Jaar begins singing about what could be commentary on the club, politics, or the end of civilization as Jaar imagines it. This is a choose-your-own-adventure lyric sheet, as guided by the mantra of an “automatic dial” that sets off unnamed alarms before a saxophone solo cuts through and reinforces the tension of Sirens’ undertones.
But don’t let the fact that Jaar sings throughout the whole album, a first for him, tell you that this is pop music. Sirens remains something immeasurable in terms of style, genre, songwriting, and overall production. Where Space Is Only Noise and side project Darkside were mostly musical thinkpieces, Sirens asks questions of society that develop in cohesion through repeat listens. Is a point trying to be made here, or is it all just building up to a romantic (or political) climax on “History Lesson?”
Though Jaar’s music bears significant resemblance to the prolific natures of Trent Reznor, Brian Eno, or Kieran Hebden, these are merely devices with which we can begin to piece together his pallet. Sirens runs swimmingly from track to track, and it’s ideal to consume it without a tracklist; listening as its samples, beats, and voices travel without a map or a compass. It’s clear Jaar wanted to do something similar to what the average listener considers to be an “album”, but making a strong case for his intentions takes patience. Contrary to pop music and accessibility at large, it works well in his favor.