"It is the musical equivalent of a dying landscape." The Monk By The Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich.twitter/asiyamiya

Dissonant notes on a pipe organ, occasional screeching and a low echo that probes into empty sound, sinking into almost complete silence, before Jaar’s falsetto erupts in choral song with the slow refrain, “say you’re coming back”. So runs ‘Vanish’, the first track of Nicolas Jaar’s new LP, Cenizas.

It is not his first album to start with what seems like an ending, or a departure. Jaar’s debut, Space is Only Noise (2011), begins with waves lapping on the shore. The album then sails out on a journey which only returns to dry land with the downtempo pulse of its central song, ‘Space is Only Noise If You Can See’, before lifting us up again in ‘Almost Fell’ as “the earth rises away from the shore…”

"It feels like a crisis of faith, a religious journey which guides the listener through vacant and jarring sounds towards the melodic serenity of its later songs."

Even his second LP, Sirens (2016), begins as glass and clocks shatter in ‘Killing Time’. After this destruction, recalling the chaos of Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’, Jaar goes on to expose the futility of change with all the quiet fury and sharpness of a political album. He reconstructs history as a timeless circle, interspersed with recordings from his childhood and old political allusions to Pinochet’s regime in Chile and Merkel’s foreign policy. Mediating between jungle and reggaeton, synth-pop and more ambient soundscapes, the album layers this ambiguous noise with an attack on the modern political world, culminating in the final 50s-inspired doo-wop track, ‘History Lesson’, which condemns politicians for getting it wrong “again, and again, and again, and again” in unnervingly dulcet tones.

But Cenizas (2020) is Jaar’s most intimate work. If the journey of Space is Only Noise is physical, and if Sirens explores time and how the future repeats the past, then Cenizas goes one step further, taking us into a void without space or time. It feels like a crisis of faith, a religious journey which guides the listener through vacant and at times jarring sounds towards the melodic serenity of its later songs. After ‘Vanish’, the album drifts through subdued chanting and the rasping percussion of its second song, ‘Menysid’, and continues in these haunting and amorphous tones.

The imagery of the album is bleak. Unlike the loud demolition at the start of Sirens, Cenizas slowly unpicks chords and genres until everything is formless. The title track, which means ‘ashes’ in Spanish, is a vision of despair. The melody howls like wind through a desert, as Jaar’s reverbed baritone whispers about the ashen state of the natural world. It is the musical equivalent of a dying landscape. In ‘Rubble’, we can hear the instruments squirming as they lose shape and crumble. A muted cello gives out a frenzied glissando and some final groans before it is silenced for good.

The cover art for Jaar's Cenizasinstagram/nicolasjaar

Yet, like all Jaar’s works, the ruin leaves room for reflection, or even regrowth. ‘Mud’ jolts the album out of its introspection as Jaar cries that “there’s something in the mud” over a heated drumbeat and steady tambourines. The drums take centre stage again at the end of the album, where we are given the clearest glimmer of transcendence. The closing movement begins with the soothing piano melody of ‘Garden’, then grows in ‘Xerox’ as the piano trembles among increasingly energised sonics and drones and Jaar’s now measured and persistent chanting, and it reaches a climax with the ethereal IDM-influenced track, ‘Faith Made of Silk’. We have moved far from the dark jazz ramblings of the opening songs. Instead of the deconstructed sounds of synths and sombre woodwinds, now, in ‘Faith Made of Silk’, we have chords from an organ, breakbeat drumming and a muted horn. Above this harmony, Jaar’s voice is clearer and more uplifting than ever. The listener is swept up on a mountaintop where “all you could see is swayed by the wind like the locks in your hair covering your eyes”. The image is not a revelation: our eyes are covered. It is still a peak, however, and it carries all the sublimity and power of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, and all the ambiguity.

And then the album stops. The crescendo that has been building for the past three songs is cut short, and the last minute of the track passes in complete silence. When you compare it to the end of Sirens (2016), which bursts into a guitar riff heralded by birdcalls and an explosion of arrhythmic drumming and gospel cries, the contrast is striking. Jaar has brought us to the point of discovery, but he lets it linger. There is no denouement. Yet there is a serenity here, an unmistakable optimism. Although he may not have found an answer, we feel he has made peace with the question.


Mountain View

Solace in songs in the time of Covid-19

It is clear by now why Cenizas is so relevant to the times we are living in. In fact, Jaar wrote much of the album in self-imposed isolation. But more than the uncanny apocalyptic imagery, more than the monastic choirs and religious symbolism that run through the work, there is a message here about the importance of self-reflection. Jaar saw his time in isolation as a time of healing. The album leaves us in limbo, as Jaar wrestles with looking inward (“behind my eye, right behind my eye”) and awaits a religious epiphany that never comes. But the value of the wait is certain. ‘Sunder’ ends as Jaar mutters the same question to himself over and over again: “do we need to be still?”. The album does not provide an answer, although it comes closest perhaps in the final words of ‘Hello Chain’: “We will now wait. Patience is our virtue. Now just wait.”