Alex Koenig set the controls for the heart of the sun.
Like a vintage, blurry black-and-white Polaroid picture you discover in your cobwebbed attic, the enigmatic songcraft of Nicolas Jaar conjures a thousand words, memories, and inflections. Pitchfork’s Mike Powell qualified it as “Purring, spectral music with shades of R&B and an exquisite attention to detail.” This website’s own Jeff Weiss called it “dance music inflected with Ethiopian jazz, Chilean techno, ’90s trip-hop, and American experimental minimalism.” Akin to Jaar’s experimental solo work, the music of Darkside – his collaboration with guitarist/bassist Dave Harrington — is a Rorschach blot, each listen yielding a different interpretation.
This isn’t to say you need to solve Darkside’s rhythmic riddle to enjoy the ride. After all, every good noir narrative makes the audience feel they’re uncovering the mystery. Psychic’s eleven-minute opener “Golden Arrow” sets the tone as it seeps into your brain, exploring every nook and cranny of your subconscious. Beginning with a synthesizer melody as bleary as television static, the bass line bumbles at the forefront. A sleek guitar groove interlocks at the midway point, but just as you begin to nod your head, it disperses in favor of a withering vocal cry.
The rest of the album is a mark up in taste and scope of the duo’s first release, the 2011 self-titled EP. Darkside EP works well as a prologue to Psychic, a calm before the storm. The record is lean and focused with ideas that define the Jaar aesthetic: dance floor anthems for the disembodied. Psychic sounds equally focused, but more drawn-out, replete with negative space and lysergic experimentation. The bluesy, call-and-response guitar progression on “Paper Trails” is as indebted to B.B. King as Syd Barrett. Yet the compositions are too crafty to be labeled as pastiche. Darkside use their influences like an Etch A Sketch, erasing and scribbling new blueprints.
Fortunately, there’s more to Psychic than form or flash– there are eight proper songs here. “Heart” is one of the most affecting love ballads of the year, highlighted by a synth in the bridge that could reach celestial heights, and an aching falsetto. As soon as the ‘80s guitar riff kicks in, you feel like you’ve transported to a John Hughes film set on Mars. “Greek Light,” the LP’s penultimate track, sleeps blissfully on a bed of flute and keyboards; bells, waves, and clicks are organically infused into the melody. There’s a lot going on, yet a casual listen makes you feel you’re alone on an island.
Several ambitious records have aspired a stronger listening experience depending on the season. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was Raekwon and RZA’s testament to a sweltering summer; the aural pleasures of GZA’s Liquid Swords emerge as snowflakes fall from the skies. Psychic is not a winter or summer album, or even a seasonal album—it’s a rain album. It’s unpredictable, cold, and can make our moods more pensive. We need rain to survive. But rainy days eventually pass. Psychic is the drops gently pattering on your windshield.
During my senior year of college in 2012, I attended a student-run, avant-garde short film showcase. The centerpiece of one of the motion pictures was “Être,” a sepia-toned song from Jaar’s 2011 debut, Space Is Only Noise. The screen displayed a kaleidoscopic swirl of color as the track progressed. Much like Jaar’s music, there was no plot to extract; no clear resolve to the swarm of random scenes—from watercolors brushing a palette to a kitten clawing at the camera lenses— moving in and out of focus, the image quality alternating from grainy to lucid. Darkside’s Psychic is no less challenging or capricious. Jaar and Harrington would do well to never reveal their crystal ball.