Album Review: Nicolas Jaar – Cenizas

[Other People; 2020]

There is an ineffable mysteriousness about Nicolas Jaar, even when considering how prolific the Chilean electronic virtuoso has become over the past couple of years. But Jaar has been especially busy within the past five months, releasing new material left and right. Before releasing his latest collection of deep house bangers and mind benders back in February under the Against All Logic pseudonym, Jaar lent his talents as a producer to the enrapturing power of FKA Twigs’ magnificent 2019 album Magdalene. Though each offering proved to be special in their own right, it is his latest record under his real name, the first since 2016’s Sirens, that continues to accentuate the allure of Jaar. 

Titled Cenizas—Spanish for “ashes”—Jaar’s latest hitch-hikes the dark terrains of an escapist world of utmost obscurity and spontaneity. Wandering into disparate valleys of experimental jazz, ascending into astral realms of ambient, and stopping at every breathtaking plane in-between, it is easy for one to lose their sense of place and interest along Cenizas’ scorched pathway. But, when Jaar pulls you back in with something inherently dream-inducing and extraterrestrial at once, it’s jaw-dropping.

For example, following the brooding but rather sleepy ambient composition of “Vaciar”, drifting listeners are engulfed by the cosmic, percolating atmosphere of “Sunder”. One of Cenizas’ few lyrical sections, this album’s half-way marker enchants through a disorienting vocal and lyrical display: “In the words of a prophet, sunder / In the shape of the first and last, sunder / In the springs of the church of sin, sunder / In the blood of the hands that laugh, sunder.” Jaar’s poetic musings, seemingly about breaking free, are quite beautiful, but they’re made much more tangible through his layering and delaying his elusive whisper to a beguiling effect.

Ravishing, experimental moments like “Sunder” are interspersed throughout Cenizas. The first track, “Vanish” opens the flood gates to an emotive wave of iridescent horns and synths, while a disconcerting refrain, “Say you’re coming back,” beckons gently, setting the precedent for the record’s overwhelming moodiness.

A clear diversion from Jaar’s recent releases as Against All Logic and even his last record under his own name, the bleakness of Cenizas deepens even further on “Menysid”. With clamoring drums knocking incessantly through an aqueous milieu, “Menysid” plunges listeners into a murky abyss, only to be pried open by “Vanish”, and then raised from the depths—quite literally—with the title track. On “Cenizas”, Jaar lends a sentiment of considerable hope, a call for resilience amidst the hyper-relevant chaos we are living in: “En las cenizas / Vamos a armor / No saber nada / Es mejor,” or loosely “In the ashes / we will form / knowing nothing now is better…”

After resurrecting listeners from impenetrable gloom, Jaar immediately grabs and grounds our attention with the rumbling gravitas of “Mud”. Leading with buzzing horns and steady percussion, Jaar continues to unravel the album’s aural mystique, interspersed with sudden shrills, all culminating into easily the most hypnotic and best track on the album. 

As Cenizas progresses, one can’t help but stand in complete awe over the fact that this mystic jazz and ambient is the same guy who released a spectacular deep house record just two months ago. Cenizas is easily Jaar’s most experimental work, one that steers him far from his significance tied to dance-driven excellence. It exudes a different kind of excellence; though there are no hooks nor beats to catch listeners in his web of brilliance, Cenizas’ sonic allure and complete diversion into sounds rarely explored makes it Jaar’s most compelling project yet. In an unprecedented time where it’s hard to escape, Nicolas Jaar’s latest record offers a reprieve and hope that we’ll rise from the ashes of this chaos.