ALBUM REVIEW: Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise

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B+ | Circus | 3.01.11 | MOG | AMAZON | INSOUND

Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise is the type of album that teeters on the edge of something special, wobbling between utter brilliance and the plunging cliff reserved for those records that try to do a lot but end up stretching a bit too far. The album’s fourteen tracks are stuffed so silly with ideas that the main thematic elements are often overwhelmed, requiring the listener to either hone in or tune out. Jaar anticipates that tendency, though, and Space Is Noise attempts to tackle the threat of becoming background noise by tackling its harshest volleys head on; most of the time, it succeeds.

Take, for example, the album’s opening seconds. “Être” begins with the sound of waves washing against a shore, as two men exchange lines in French. Soon, as the Frenchmen vanish and the waves continue to lap, a film voiceover monotones a meditative riff: “Look, it’s a body, floating into the land. Now it’s a body swimming out into the water. Now it’s the land itself, here, that is a body; a body of land. It’s the water itself that’s a body of water.” The French voice returns, and by the time the first true note of the album sounds, we are over a minute into the track. You want background nature sounds? Jaar asks. Here you go. Do your best.

These are not background nature sounds. In fact, Space Is Only Noise presents some of the most expansive experimental minimalism being made today, equally the product of a life in the studio and a life in the world. Jaar, a 21 year old student at Brown University (yeah, what are you doing with your life?), spins together a confluence of influences; stunted and breathy vocal samples beat underneath fluidly classical piano melodies, ticking synthetic pulses underlie the sound of kids on the playground. On the album’s second track, “Colomb,” which broods with rounded electric organ, a particularly fascinating instrument appears – first quietly and then in a storm. It sounds like a small wooden ball being dropped from a height onto a tightly stretched drum; it sounds like raindrops.

Those raindrops are sprinkled throughout the album, continuing the watery theme of the first seconds of “Être.” One can only guess that Jaar means for us to find something there, in that thematic element. Perhaps a statement on the fluidity of music? A quest for the soothing, repetitive qualities of nature? To me, it’s the interplay of the organic and the manmade – the attempt to mimic the natural world within worlds of our own.

That search has seemingly led Jaar far and wide, leaving cultural and aural remnants scattered all around these tracks. Space Is Noise is an amalgamation of cultures and genres. Many of the album’s tracks are instrumental, while others contain lyrics in French, Spanish, and English. Jaar samples children, conversations, and even Ray Charles on the melancholy “I Got A Woman.” Some tracks, like drum-riff “Trace,” interstitial exercise “Sunflower,” and the robo-voiced “Specters Of The Future” seem to be more sketches than complete songs, each exploring a different element of sound as if to peer down a path to catch a glimpse at what might lie at the end. “Variations” simultaneously recalls The Nutcracker and a Flying Lotus show. There are so many vignettes to explore here that it’s almost maddening.

The album’s propensity to start in one direction only to promptly reverse is often frustrating; the raindrop effects so omnipresent on the album’s first handful of tracks are all but absent in the latter songs. The middle of the album has an experiment dance vibe that simultaneously channels dubstep and the 1980s, only to revert more abstract works toward the record’s close. It’s tough to find a groove when listening to Space Is Noise, and even tougher to stay there once you’ve settled in.

Jaar’s pleasantly unobtrusive style makes it completely comfortable to let Space Is Noise fade into the background. This isn’t a draining album to listen to, but it might take three or four spins before you even begin to process what is going on in a general sense. More than anything else, this album is exciting. Not exciting in the sense that it’s an upbeat and electrifying album, but in the sense that Nicolas Jaar is all of 21 years old and making music that sounds like this.

There are so many interesting rabbit holes on Space Is Noise as to render Jaar’s career trajectory nearly impossible to predict. The album’s title track hints that he could fill James Murphy’s soon to be empty shoes. Other songs lump him closer to Four Tet or James Blake. No matter where he ends up, though, this album is a fantastic start. Space Is Noise won’t grab you by the collar and force you to listen – it doesn’t shout. Instead, it waits for its moments, speaking slowly and softly when there’s something to be said. You can choose to ignore Nicolas Jaar, but when you start paying attention, he’ll have something interesting to say.

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