Sirens is a record heavy with symbols.
We talk a lot on here about how a record is best experienced when it’s experienced on vinyl, but there are few albums where that’s as true as it is for Nicolas Jaar’s new LP Sirens.
Musically, it is without doubt Jaar’s most accomplished, striking a succinct balance between the fragmented electronics and plaintive piano work of his debut Space Is Only Noise and a brasher post-punk influence. The track names hint at historical significance of his US-Chilean heritage, nodding to the ‘No’ plebiscite that eventually deposed General Pinochet in 1988.
But without an understanding of Spanish, that’s about as far as you’ll get until you get your hands on the artwork. Just as the record appears to pivot between musical reference points, Sirens is very much a record of contrasts, a record of reflection and illumination.
The cover, at first, appears both enigmatic and gimmicky, the artwork hidden behind a film of lottery paper that is to be scratched off by a US quarter, included in the package. The kind of trick that won’t win Jaar any friends with those who already find his sound too earnest, the cover though is crucial to understanding the album’s more complex messages.
Working with designer and typographer David Rudnick (who had previously created scratch-off posters for artist Jon Rafman’s 2013 NYC exhibition), Jaar’s Sirens requires active participation. Scratch away the film and a photo of Times Square emerges, taken by his father, prominent artist Alfredo Jaar (who also provided the photos for Space Is Only Noise) in 1987 of his “A Logo For America” artwork – a sarcastic rebuke of Unites States’ semantic colonisation of the term “America” with total disregard for the Latin American content.
Quarter in hand, it’s not hard to feel somewhat complicit. But here’s where things get complicated. Alfredo Jaar has been living in self-imposed exile in the US for decades, a superstar artist who many feel removed himself from Chile’s complex politics by asserting that art had no political agency.
Embracing his father’s work on both albums, Nico has never shied away from that association. While questions about national politics abound in a post-Trump world where relations between the Americas are as strained as ever, Sirens appears as much concerned with a more personal struggle around identity, and that which is prefigured by his father.
As Jaar told Picthfork recently: “At one point while making the record, I thought that I was starting to see a path but then I realized that it was very similar to my father’s path, and that in itself was an illusion. You see the struggle of that in the cover—only when you scratch off the lottery paper do you see his work. A part of me wonders whether it’s the last exorcism of my stuff with him.”
Presented in bold type on the back of the sleeve, it’s clear that the record’s lyrical content is hugely important to Jaar, even if he makes no concessions to a stubbornly Anglophile audience. Listen instead and you’ll hear this contrast in the rhythms of the record’s two most politically-charged tracks: ‘No’ lilts to the gentle cumbia of Chile (and features a sample of Paraguayan harpist Sergio Cuevas), while the album’s final track, ‘History Lesson’ lollops to the doo-wop of the United States.
On the record’s PVC sleeve is the central refrain of ‘No’ – “Ya Dijimos No, Pero El SI Esta En Todo” or “We already said NO but the Yes is in everything”. There is a sense of despondency to the whole thing, that despite what is said to be so, reality looks somewhat different. Or, in this case, all too familiar.
Finally, inside, the record’s a-side label carries the phrase “A broken mirror still reflects”, while the b-side opts for “light passing through a window without breaking it”. Illumination and reflection again, open to interpretation.
Unlike the cover, scratch away at the surface of Sirens and any semblance of thesis becomes less clear. This is a complex record full of personal and political contradictions that only serve to add to the intrigue. It’s a shame though, that without the record in hand, most of this will be passed by.