Nicolas Jaar’s ‘Sirens’ Is an Electronic Manifesto on Pinochet-Era Chile

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Nicolas Jaar’s discography following the release of his 2011 debut album Space is Only Noise has been as impressive as it has been patchy and scarce. Last year, he released Pomegranates, a behemoth of an alternative soundtrack to accompany the 1969 Russian film The Color of Pomegranates. He also issued a series of EPs titled Nymphs, which turned out to constitute a full-length album that wasn’t revealed as such until recently. But for Jaar himself, there was a missing link between those two releases, and that gap sparked Sirens, his most recent body of work.

According to an interview with Pitchfork, Jaar believes Sirens is both his most political and personal album to date – and we can see why. The first hint of the album’s political foundation is the scratch-off cover art, which reveals a 1987 photo of A Logo for America, a piece created by visual artist Alfredo Jaar (Nicolas’ father). An outline of the U.S. appears with the phrase “this is not America” stamped on it – a sentiment shared by many Latinxs who argue that the identity of the American continent encompasses more than the United States.

Jaar weaves the personal and political into the lyrical content of Sirens, too. Several songs carry charged references to the history of Chile during and after the dictatorship established by Augusto Pinochet in the 70s. “No” draws inspiration from the 1988 referendum that ultimately ended Pinochet’s regime. On it, Jaar sings, “Ya dijimos no, pero el sí está en todos…Y nada cambia por estos lados,” suggesting that the Chileans collective consciousness hasn’t seen a radical change since the Pinochet days. “Three Sides of Nazareth,” on the other hand, tackles the murder and torture that Pinochet used as instruments of control. Though the lyrics never feel too straightforward or preachy, they hit hard and separate this collection from the escapism associated with some electronic music. Jaar adds another layer of intimacy with vocal samples of conversations he had with his father as a kid.

Sirens features some of Jaar’s most experimental pieces, as well as some of his most pop-oriented works – and they coexist in perfect harmony. There are lengthy sections of delicate piano strokes and noisy atmospheres on tracks like “Killing Time” and “Leaves,” juxtaposed with the Elvis-like rockabilly of “The Governor,” the cumbia-tinted “No,” and the nod to Suicide’s Alan Vega on “Three Sides of Nazareth.” The album closes out with a doo-wop moment called “History Lesson,” leaving no doubt that the Chilean-American producer can thread pretty much any genre he wants into his music, with an elegance and sophistication that is all his own. And this time, that sophistication isn’t just an artistic exercise; it has a social purpose, too.