Preview: This story will appear in FADER #79, on stands soon.
Recently, Nicolas Jaar was in a coffee shop in Canada when his 2011 album, Space is Only Noise, came on the stereo. It’s a widely acclaimed record—deep, lush and patient. Ideas unfold richly and organically in an unassumingly seductive way. It’s exactly the sort of sound you’d expect from a 22-year-old Ivy Leaguer and artist’s son who grew up on a steady diet of 10-plus minute electronic music. As the album played over the cafe’s soundsystem, Jaar’s mental state went from stoked to semi-bummed. “For a second it was kind of funny and cool,” he says. “But then it hit me that the music sounded really loungey. I was like, Oh, in this context, this music does not sound the way I wanted to make it. I had this strange repulsion against my album. I’m proud of it in other settings, but in that setting—it just wasn’t happening for me.” What followed was a not immediately obvious personal re-evaluation of his own work, scattered across a couple brief EPs, some remixes, and an aesthetically bizarre new compilation called The Prism.
The first sign of this re-evaluation was the single “Don’t Break My Love.” It’s the aural equivalent of someone sitting at a sculptor’s wheel, molding record crackle and loose, stumbling drum clicks into a fully formed song with bluesy, semi-whispered vocals. It’s not immediately different from Space is Only Noise, but it sounds more mature, more obsessed with turning tiny moments into centerpieces without losing any of the restraint that made Jaar such a force in the first place. “I stopped trying to make songs,” Jaar says. “If it’s a record crackle and I want to make some form of percussion with a record crackle, then that’s absolutely what the main thing of the first two minutes of the song will be. I don’t care if it’s not a beat. It was more of a thing like, let’s completely forget about making tracks, songs, music. Let’s just make sounds first.”
Jaar conceived The Prism—a small, strange silver cube with two headphone jacks—as a compilation, including both his own music as well as other artists he’s released on his Clown and Sunset label. There’s no tracklist, but there’s a steady aesthetic line throughout: it’s warm without being safe, slow without being boring, experimental without being uncomfortable. Everything sounds like it’s been wrapped in a velvet blanket and given one too many hot toddies. The Prism, as an object, is gorgeous and the double headphone situation encourages intimate listening, which Jaar feels is largely lacking in music right now. “It’s not on a screen, so you can’t go to minute three and just do whatever you want with the song. It has you for three minutes. It’s either that, or you press stop,” he says.
When Jaar’s publicist gave me a prototype of The Prism, he encouraged me to lay down on my bed and share the experience with my girlfriend, I laughed, thinking about that little silver thing just chilling between us on the sheets, but then it started to seem like a pretty nice idea. This is what is great about Nicolas Jaar. He’s not reinventing the wheel, he’s just embedding himself in musical tropes that were around way before he was. Loving them, losing himself in them, and finding new ways to mold beautiful sounds from unconventional sources.
Stream: Nicolas Jaar's Space Is Only Noise LP