Nicolas Jaar is not known for his complacency. He’s a damn hard working musician who has gained well deserved success in the past decade with his minimal-house prowess that you’re probably familiar with. Perhaps it’s his early work on ‘Don’t Break My Love’, Space is Only Noise, or the bluesy grooves on his collaboration Darkside. Maybe you’re familiar with his house compilations as Against All Logic. Yes, there’s a side of Nicolas Jaar that needs little introduction. However, he’s got an even more experimental streak and one that’s wholeheartedly devoted to pushing his own creative boundaries in search of fully distorting the line between accessibility and the avant-garde. It’s always been there, but on Cenizas, it’s on full display.
For many, the first indication that Nicolas Jaar was delving into some unconventional territory was his alternate soundtrack to the film The Colour of Pomegranates. His Nymphs EP series had similar offbeat sonic manipulations. However, people often overlook the work he did running his second record label, Other People. In curating his own label, he befriended a pioneer of New York no wave music, Lydia Lynch. Prior to his last release, Jaar reissued Lunch’s Conspiracy of Women and some live Teenage Jesus and Jerks material. At the time I was curious if her approach would somehow influence him. No wave as a genre falls somewhere between avant-garde, punk and blues music, born out of nihilism, noise and an empty slot at New York’s infamous CBGB. No wave bands didn’t really have a homogenous sound - their commonalities came from subversion of the music that surrounded them. When it came down to it, it was a form of artistic rebellion, and that’s precisely what Jaar engages in here. He’s eschewed his house and dance roots, and subverts them in the process. Thankfully, the spirit of no wave is very much alive in Cenizas.
On Cenizas, you won’t find blossoming synths or much in the way of drum beats, really. Instead, Jaar makes the most out of Rhodes keyboards, saxophone, hushed synth patches, and warped percussive noises by exploiting their textural offerings on a granular level; and he’s got quite the ear for that. He’s used similar sounds previously on Sirens and the Nymphs series, though things feel more sparse here. The whole record is melancholic, at times dreary, and especially minimalistic, but that doesn’t detract in the slightest from how beautifully mesmerizing these compositions are. His vocals are less processed than usual and arranged like never before, but it still remains intentionally tough to discern some lyrics cloaked in echo. He also mixed the album with avant-garde musician Patrick Higgins, whose music drifts into immersive experimental territory often. Needless to say, the mixing on this record is superb.
Jaar’s voice takes on an angelic choral quality on “Vanish” (underscored by a massive organ which initially drags us into the album), with his vocals offering a beautiful transition into the next song, “Menysid”. But on other tracks, like “Cenizas” or “Sunder”, the vocal is mostly untreated. “Is there blood in the court? Is there blood on the ceiling?” he asks on the latter. On the former, he sings in Spanish of us “forming in the ashes, knowing nothing is better.” These haunting lyrics highlight the record’s dark introspection, but Nicolas’ voice hits with the unshakeable realization and acceptance of bleakness through his delivery and lyrics and this is by design. His intentionality towards this acceptance is an attitude that carries itself through the record, preventing things from getting too stark. Although the darkness is there, by accepting it we abrogate the suffering.
Nicolas Jaar went a bit Walden when making this record - isolating himself “somewhere on the other side of the world” while becoming vegan (hmmm) and going without smoking (okay), alcohol (oh..) and caffeine (fuck). He was out there trying to shred certain motivations, discard the system, and place love ahead of it all. Most of all, he was trying to rid himself of the negative - the darkness. When he found he couldn’t escape it, he embraced it. He aims for this album to be a way out of that dejection. And while it doesn’t offer catharsis or cleansing, Cenizas offers a depiction of the darkness that’s theoretically ideal - it’s nothing that will consume you, but a great challenge that one learns from upon overcoming it. “Look around not ahead,” he sings on closer ‘Faith Made of Silk’ atop a disassembled drum break and more gentle synths that grow into nothingness, gifting you a minute of silence to recompose yourself after experiencing the record. These instruments lead you into the light, only to abruptly let go of your hand. It’s an allegory for his approach to life’s negativities: look around and you can overcome, keep looking ahead and you’ll miss the opportunity.
On a note he left on his website accompanying the album, he discusses music as juggling freedoms, and politics as a spiritual manifestation of society. Unlike so many of his peers in electronic music, Jaar isn’t offering an escape. Instead, he’s manifesting the darkness of politics (but look past partisan politics here, or else you’re just “looking ahead”). It’s an anti-movement, but the message stands tall: music is politics. The politics that separate us can’t hold our power back, not all that different from the way he subverts the idea of ‘Nicolas Jaar’s music’ on this album. And in this political attitude expressed through dissonant music lies the essence of no wave.
The most striking thing about Jaar’s avant-garde side is that it contrasts so heavily with his taste-making dance music expertise. Cenizas is vastly different from his previous output. But it is an act of defiance, and a document of sonic rebellion. For all it’s heavy heartedness, steeped in the darkness, it encourages the listener’s endurance for the sake of reflection and growth. It may just be his most inspired work yet.