Tripping Out on Nicolas Jaar

It looked as though Nicolas Jaar had big plans up his sleeves for 2020. That was, until Coronavirus took hold and the world – you and I – hit pause. With two releases in quick succession early in the year, first as Against All Logic and then eponymously, Jaar stepped back into the frame long after having lost me around the time of Pomegranates

Losing me at Pomegranates is not to say I had not been paying attention to Jaar’s output. I was gearing up to review each new album independently, as the beginnings of an outline of some of my thinking on Nicolas Jaar. However, given all the newfound time we seem to have on our hands, I thought why not tie the whole thing together? Allow me to show my age a little and take you back to 2010.

It was the first of what would become many trips to Barcelona’s Sónar festival. Dots & Dashes and I were mainly interested in the ‘de día’ to see the smattering of up-and-coming, more Indie artists that the festival used to take pride in showcasing at its then-smaller venue in El Raval. I received an incongruous message from an – even then – very loose friend. He recognised my Sónar presence and implored me to see ‘Nico Jaar’ while there. Never heard of him, but OK.

The Raval venue back then had a stage that was one level down, in a garage-sized hall that could have doubled as a small car-park. In sweltering heat and between too many cigarettes, we curiously listened to this young wunderkind, playing replete with a band that included saxophone-toting Will Epstein and would-be DARKSIDE partner, Dave Harrington. Jaar was not exceptional, but was unforgettable. It was WOUH which we left, in mutual agreement, labelling “a tune.” Live, it was transformed from the record – a song that reached a totally absorbing other realm that took control of you and your body, beneath the thunderous bass of that live venue.

The son of a Chilean artist, Jaar has consistently embodied his roots within his art, despite being based out of New York since finishing a Bachelor’s in Comparative Literature at Brown University, he frequently sings in Spanish and samples in the language – but you can read Wikipedia yourself and do your own digging. This post is intended to help you to do exactly that and,  believe me, it pays off.

Back in London, then living in a state of isolation reminiscent of our contemporary plight, I pondered what to make of this thing called Life and delved into Jaar’s then-smaller back catalogue. He had just released Space Is Only Noise, an album I have come to consider better with age, albeit still distinctly mediocre in comparison (with the exception of Too Many Kids Finding Rain In The Dust) to what was going on around Nicolas Jaar at the same time. It is an album that makes for exceptional, contemplative and solitary listening – as too much of his music can lean towards. Meanwhile, Remixes and sets were popping up online that hinted at the exact opposite – an entirely unique voice in House, which was growing in popularity as a genre, but not yet the generic term that parasitic “E.D.M.” would co-opt into a cultural carcinogen. Jaar’s mixes would appear incongruously, but would be definitive in leading me to understand Jaar’s individuality and talent as an electronic artist.

Nicolas Jaar is, first and foremost, an electronic artist. That is what you have to understand. Maybe you’ll get it when you hear early Jaar’s production prowess in Don’t Break My Love, or perhaps you’ll just enjoy his equivalent of mainstream with Mi Mujer. Either way, Jaar cannot really be put in the same box as a Bicep, for example – primarily because Jaar is not inclined to release crowd-pleasers when given the chance, opting instead to explore sonic spaces and textures that can certainly lose a casual listener.

Fast forward to 2012. I was set to move to Madrid to learn important things. I had continued to try and find Nicolas Jaar sets that replicated – or at least came close to – the experience I had had in Barcelona. Surely it wasn’t a one-off? If Nicolas Jaar sounded like that live, why was all his music so mellow? Perhaps he was one of those artists that was radically different live, as opposed to in-studio?

That year, Jaar also formed DARKSIDE with Will Harrington, releasing a self-titled EP consisting of three tracks; A1, A2 and – yes – A3.

The EP was sensational. To say this was a fresh sound was an understatement. It landed like a nuclear bomb, rippling through House music and – in cases – spawning changes in other electronic musicians’ artistic direction that veered straight into rip-off territory. The combination of Harrington’s guitar loop wizardry and Jaar’s ear for rhythm created an infectious sound that I constantly yearned for throughout the year. In the nascent days of streaming, these tracks were also hard to get your hands on.

I had the privilege of seeing Darkside perform the same year, at – yes – Sónar (de día), again. Jaar and Harrington played a limited set that was relatively subdued when measured against the EP. All of the tracks were there, but there was some timidity to the performance. This could be turned up to 11.

It was at the Sónar de noche, however, that minds were blown and the beginnings of an understanding were formed. Jaar’s performance at Sónar 2012 was – and remains – phenomenal.

I arrived minutes late to the set to see Jaar, again with the full band, absolutely mesmerising thousands of people with a set that spanned an enormous range of textures, emotions, rhythms and hooks. No additives needed. Those that were there continue to speak about the performance fondly. A young Jaar was at the top of his game.

That September, I began learning important things, but also found myself preaching a then-equally-important gospel to my friends; that of Nicolas Jaar.

We spent countless hours pouring over Jaar’s work – the mixes, in particular. Wolf + Lamb’s 2008 Jaar showcases were favourites as we hung out at all hours of the day (and night. and day.). There was always the risk, though, that Jaar was simply buried in his own work. Space Is Only Noise remained relatively impenetrable when compared to his live performances, mixes and remixes. It had not happened yet, but the tendency could creep in at times, as I’d see my friends’ attention turned to the music, and not in a good way. I want to underline again that Nicolas Jaar is clearly an electronic artist. He is not inclined to be a crowd-pleaser and, if you’re a fan, you know that by now.

Simultaneously, however, Jaar is capable of aurally transporting you all over the Universe. The depth and breadth of his textures, production and use of samples as both music and narrative elements extends the meaning of electronic music into a form of almost interactive entertainment, in which the audience – in this case the listener – project their imagination onto the music, imbuing it with deeper resonance. Jaar’s beats strike right at the soul, driving a rhythm out of you that you didn’t know existed. It is infectious, and yet simultaneously beautifully devoid of warmth.

As if to top things off, Jaar debuted on Radio 1’s Essential Mix that Summer. A relatively sizable and excitable crew of us were now obsessed with Nico, including the most pre-natal form of the very Snobs you read today (Cuzomano, Otacon, El Mascarado and John have known each other for a while, you see). 

Revelatory promises of the delights on offer at Sónar were enough to tempt everyone into buying tickets to see the Great Man live ensemble. Come June, sleepless nights be damned, I ventured once again into Barcelona’s deep underbelly for Sónar de noche and – most importantly – Nicolas Jaar.

This time, Jaar played solo. Did it make a difference? Yes. Did it make it bad? No. Obviously, band versus no band is not a fair comparison (band playing badly versus band playing well is), but how did Jaar do? Were the audience as enthralled as before? Yes, but not quite. There was, by now, quite considerable hype behind Jaar and one got the feeling that he could feel it, too, and didn’t want to be that, as an artist.

So began Nicolas Jaar’s committed decision to crawl up his own arse. Cracks had started to show right at the edges of the greatest moments of his aforementioned Essential Mix, where brilliance could veer into losing the audience, as teases of music were lost to too much meandering through sound.

Before becoming totally engulfed by his own colon, however, Nico had one more trick up his sleeve. 

Jaar absolutely exploded in popularity via the decision, with Harrington, to follow-up on the promise of the DARKSIDE EP with a superlative full-length record, Psychic.

By now in London, endlessly sprinting on the money treadmill and with no near-term end in sight (those were bleak, bleak days), I managed to snag tickets to see DARKSIDE at Elephant & Castle’s Coronet theatre. Bereft of my Madrileño friends, the only soul willing to join me in seeing Jaar & Harrington was a German co-worker (go figure). 

My dear readers, the show was peak Jaar. Lit by an enormous disco ball, Jaar & Harrington tore the venue to shreds in a blistering set that never relented. Paper Trails positively thundered into one’s soul as the beat dropped and Metatron reached a new level of epic as a closing song. There are numerous recordings of this 2014 tour on SoundCloud, and I encourage you to listen to the Paris one, but would prefer you start with a glimpse into the more timid, less audacious DARKSIDE I first saw in 2012, via this Boiler Room set the duo performed prior to embarking on the tour proper.

Jaar’s – and Harrington’s – capabilities were by now difficult to refute. ‘Normal’ people knew who DARKSIDE were (albeit not the name Nicolas Jaar  – a tool he would employ again with the A.A.L. moniker). There was one more track – the delicious Gone Too Soon before, just like that (and not unpredictably for fans), DARKSIDE was disbanded. Over.

Back in solo Jaar-land, the first few releases amidst DARKSIDE were great – an additional Boiler Room as Nicolas Jaar solo, as well as the phenomenal OUR WORLD mix (which, alongside the Essential Mix, could have its own post – seriously, these mixes may seem intimidatingly long and impenetrable, but listen. to. them.). Single Marquises equally showed Nico still had interesting electronic music in him, whilst retaining an accessibility that kept the ear – and mind – engaged.

Simultaneously, Jaar made himself harder to track with the launch of his OTHER PEOPLE imprint. Inclined as I was to subscribe, the whole package was relatively uninviting and too bereft of Nicolas Jaar solo, which was what I wanted (and indeed what Nico knew his fans wanted).  Jaar was leveraging his success to promote others. A noble act, albeit one that tested his own fans.

With Pomegranates, however, Jaar took testing his fans a little further, releasing an alternative soundtrack to a 1969 film that was, above all, boring.

OK, we get it – you’re an artist. Implicitly, that also dictates that you can indeed do what you want – particularly if you have the means to do so – but that doesn’t mean we need – or want – to keep paying attention, and we might stop, although we don’t want to.

That’s not to say Jaar was flailing. As with Space Is Only Noise, what was going on around him remained at least relatively interesting. 2015’s Fight was nice, but a remix of Florence & The Machine’s What Kind Of Man in the same year weirdly veered between same-y by Jaar’s standards and tediously testing. Jaar had hit his ‘difficult’ phase.

How was it that the same artist who could usher forth John Lennon’s Imagine as an ethereal epilogue to an American Football commentator’s receipt of news of the Beatles’ murder that same day – who could light up an arena as large as Barcelona’s Sónar by night with innovative dance – who arranged Encore – could summarily crawl so deep into his own backside that he became physically incapable of releasing another tune?

It felt like Nicolas Jaar was actively rejecting his popular sensibilities, in search of only the “purest” fan – or no audience at all – which always feels a little self-indulgent.

The Nicolas Jaar trail went dark in 2015, apart from a brief whisper in the form of lead single No from 2016’s mediocre Sirens (the message and art related to the album was, however, noble and interesting). Nicolas Jaar was no longer that interesting. Time for someone else. I still struggled to find equally-captivating electronic music, however.

Then, in 2018, old channels light up that I’ve not seen in a while. Some artist called Against All Logic has released a record called 2012 – 2017. This record is good. It’s Nicolas Jaar, under a new name. An alter-ego that permits bangers? It was Now U Got Me Hooked that… got me hooked, but tracks like opener This Old House Is All I Have and Such a Bad Way saw a return to form from Nico that got me excited. It was also a warmer sound. Then again, as the album title suggests, it was a collection of tracks Jaar produced between 2012 and 2017, so of course the tracks were half-decent; they were recorded when he was still alright. Am I being too cynical? It’s 2018 – where’s something contemporary, Nico? Whilst it made our albums of the year, in truth by December I was giving the album far less thought. It was hard for Nicolas Jaar to be relevant for me again.

At the end of last year, however, Nicolas Jaar stepped back into the fray. Not as himself, mind you – and at first I didn’t notice. 

It was while listening to FKA Twigs’ superlative MAGDALENE that my ears pricked up. I found a thread that needed to be pulled on. Within Cellophane, those crunchy, squelchy beats beneath the arrestingly wondrous vocals seemed so familiar.

Sure enough, Jaar had produced her album. No wonder this was the first FKA Twigs release I had loved

That was December. In January of this year, Jaar fans got another surprise – a new Against All Logic release, this time spanning 2017 – 2019. Gone was the house for this record. Amazingly, Jaar had deviated from his sound and ventured into Techno. 

Without doubt, 2017 – 2019 is Jaar’s strongest work – as Against All Logic – since the DARKSIDE project.

By way of anecdotal evidence, I must reveal that – despite my own professed deep love of music – I live with the equivalent of a luddite. My other half struggles to tell the difference between any two Queen songs, let alone Bowie or Radiohead. It is a tragedy. Yet, it was under Jaar’s spell that a fairly decent little dance routine began to emerge whenever 2017 – 2019 was playing. It transpires that, when Jaar does Techno, he does it very well. Opening with Fantasy and what sounds like a Beyoncé sample, the entire album is a tight, 45 minute mix of high-tempo energy. If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard, featuring Lydia Lunch’s caustic lyricism and vocals, provides an early lead single that is eminently danceable and could readily fill an arena. It is Faith, however, that proves the album’s pinnacle, with an utterly hypnotic beat that consumes all attention within earshot. Follow-up track Penny provides beautifully euphoric zen under subdued drums, distinctly echoing Bowie’s Moss Garden, albeit in a thoroughly more modern skin.

This month’s Cenizas, however, is not good. That is absurdly reductive, but it’s true.

Cenizas demonstrates the frustrating impenetrability of Nicolas Jaar when he is burrowed within his own lower intestine like a confused ostrich. Faith Made of Silk proves to be a suitable closer to pretty much anything contemplative, such as this very trip.

Even if Jaar did, as with Sirens, reveal much of his own sentiment and thought behind the album upon its release via his website, the album is classic Jaar insofar as A.A.L.’s hints at commercial appeal and leanings towards a new genre are swept aside for, under his own name, the “treat” of a nearly full hour of meandering atmospheric ephemera that is at once exemplary of Jaar’s style, but equally a total sink into forgettable background ambience, even when one tries to concentrate on the music itself. Above all, it loses the listener in its entirely self-aware, considered restraint. And that’s putting it kindly.

Jaar’s thought and expression is well-informed and intelligent, a product of his Ivy League education with a Humanities focus. Yet Jaar also has six-odd years of acutely-accurate cultural sensitivity under his belt when it comes to innovative Dance music, which was rewarded with fame – quite something, considering Jaar was born in 1990. His choice, however, having achieved this, was to dive deep into his own art. Artists in other genres have done this and become phenomenal – Prince, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, for example. Jaar, however, does not become phenomenal. He becomes frustratingly opaque. But then, just when you’re at peak frustration, he’ll pop out a corking A.A.L.-branded treat for you, or some other equivalent.

It’s infuriating. 

So there you have it. Warily, I am now paying attention – and listening – to Nicolas Jaar again. If you didn’t already know him, you should hopefully feel a bit better-informed and curious now. If, like me, you are tested by him, I guess we’ll always have to see what comes next.

At least he’s likely worth seeing live again now…

…I hope.