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February 23, 2017

Nicolas Jaar creates transcendental electronic music with “Sirens”

Why do you listen to music?

Is it to find the hottest track to dance to? Or do you instead just appreciate a musician’s lyrical style? Do you just use music to pass time?

Though there are a million different reasons why you’ll press play on that favorite Spotify playlist today, I’m confident that none of those reasons are why you should listen to Nicolas Jaar’s new LP, “Sirens.”

Nicolas Jaar is one of the premier electronic musicians in the world, but his music is far from what you’ll want to include in this week’s party playlist. Jaar’s electronic sounds are likely to induce trance-like head bops, but his often lyric-less beats rarely satisfy the catchy-chorus cravings that can be so easily satisfied with radio hits.

Can Jaar’s music be a tool to help pass the time? Maybe. But denigrating his art to the status of “easy-listening” would be to under-appreciate its truly transcendental qualities.

“Sirens,” released Sept. 30, is a record that should be looked at as an enigma best heard in a meditative, semi-conscious state. Listening to it in this way is the only means by which the listener can unravel its intricate and complex sonic features.

Many revelations can be unearthed while trying to solve the enigma that is this record, as Jaar has created a musical treasure chest that takes the form of beautiful “Sirens.”

The album’s opening track, “Killing Time,” opens with a little noise. A faint muffle, and the sound of clothing flapping away in the wind can almost be heard. Then, suddenly, an eruption of frantic piano dressed in an array of dangling chimes comes forth out of the quiet, startling the listener and confirming the notion that Jarr’s music can’t and won’t be confined to any tempo or cue.

The piano eruption rescinds, but comes forth again before long. Between those moments, depending on what your imagination produces, a plethora of foreign sounds can be heard, conjuring in the mind an array of fragmented images. However, before those images can become more concrete, the piano and chimes from earlier erupt once again, leaving the listener and their would-be images disoriented.

“The Governor,” the second track on “Sirens,” is the album’s most rhythmic and locomotive track. Jaar reunites with the same bass-heavy synths that he utilized in his 2011 song, “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See,” in a more abstract way.

Never letting the beat fully stick and instead messing with its fluidity via the inclusion of various, chaotic-sounding stringed instruments, Jaar makes us rethink the purpose of beauty and sound. Can a rich piano chord progression combine with blunter, more aching noises to create beautiful danceable music? Instead of a simplistic beat looped in a repetitive sequence, “The Governor” proves that not all dance songs need to be mentally vapid.

The final song on “Sirens,” “Wildflowers,” is a spiritually uplifting electronic symphony. Here, Jaar’s delicate and clear vocals are underscored by a playful beat which bends and whammies with a life of its own.

What’s most appealing about “Wildflowers” is its simplicity. While the previous songs on “Sirens” enlighten the listener with a free form, non-definitive structure, “Wildflowers” conveys the benefits of holding back chaos to dwell in the realm of melody and uninterrupted beauty. It is a perfectly tranquil way to end “Sirens,” as no one appreciates the lingering ringing of sirens in the ear.

The year or so leading up to “Sirens” was an incredibly productive time for Jaar. In his electrifying soundtrack to Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning 2015 film, “Dheepan,” Jaar developed an ability to use sound as a conduit of shocking vibrancy, enhancing the mundane conditions of a Paris housing project. With his 2015 collection of EPs, “Nymphs,” Jaar seemed to be dabbling in an array of different sounds, developing a greater idea of how meaningful and varied electronic music can be.

With “Pomegranates,” his 2015 unofficial alternate soundtrack to the 1969 Sergei Parajanov film, “The Color of Pomegranates,” Jaar deconstructs sounds intended to evoke certain filmed images, in order to bring forth new ones. With this soundtrack, Jaar conducted a study on the boundless ability of sounds to evoke or distort images in our minds.

These three works all led up to “Sirens,” which in many ways pulls from each album to create a poetic, cumulative experience that shows the ever-maturing skills of this 26-year-old producer. “Sirens” 45-minute length demands a focused listen.

Sitting down and peacefully letting this music fill the recesses of your mind will undoubtedly serve as one of the most meaningful artistic experiences of your week.

William Plotnick can be reached wplotnick@umass.edu.

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