Sirens sets off the alarms

In a political year where impossibility after impossibility has become reality, Nicolas Jaar's third studio album Sirens suitably sets off the alarms.

It is the Chilean American's most polemical record yet, but it is wrought with deep melancholia, rather than simple public rage. The slippages hint at structures disintegrating and subtexts surfacing.

The sirens here, for instance, are as much about modern America as his own intimate familial history. They also refer to mythological temptresses who lure unsuspecting sailors to their watery deaths - an allusion to the thousands of refugees who drown in the Mediterranean trying to make their way to Europe?

Listen to the ambient opener Killing Time. It begins silently and you wonder whether you are hearing anything. Then a fluttering - according to Jaar himself, it is a flag waving in the wind. It could also signify a boat adrift in the open sea.

It is followed by glass breaking - which could be a mirror or a window. Is someone breaking in, or breaking out? Is a dream splintering?

  • ELECTRONICA

  • SIRENS

    Nicolas Jaar

    Other People

    4/5 stars

Jaar sings in a barely audible wheeze: "I think we're just out of time/Said the officer to the kid/Ahmed was almost 15 and handcuffed." Ahmed is Ahmed Mohamed, the Sudanese-American teenage inventor who was arrested last year for taking a homemade clock to school.

The album shifts gear with the propulsive post-punk banger The Governor. A serpentine horn and sputtering drums 'n' bass accompany his indictment of the titular character:

"Your eye's in the wrong place reflecting a tear/Go ahead and forget, give us a smile."

He adds: "We've created a monster and it's ready to build." Gasp.

Sometimes, he sublimates his pain. Leaves is a recollection of a memory, wistful synths mixed in with a recording of Jaar as a child speaking to his father in Spanish. It hits a nerve when you realise that the recording was done two weeks before his parents divorced. The father was saying: "Go to the wall, go to the wall", an innocent statement that takes on ominous implications in the wake of the American electoral results.

The introspection is likely triggered by a recent visit to Chile, where Jaar was asked to perform at a museum chronicling the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Three Sides Of Nazareth ups the tempo, with its forewarning delivered against clattering drums: "If every now and then you feel you've seen it all/Then be sure to remember there's always two sides to a wall."

He next delivers similar lines that become increasingly macabre: "I found my broken bones on the side of the road/I found my broken home on the side of the road/I found my broken lens by the side of the road/I found my broken friends by the side of the road."

The gut-wrenching ends, however, with a seemingly incongruous doo-wop ballad History Lesson until you figure out what he is cooing. It is a litany of man's misdemeanours: "Chapter one: We f***ed up/Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again/'Chapter three: We didn't say sorry." Take heed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'Sirens sets off the alarms'. Print Edition | Subscribe