Much Ado About Nico: Nicolas Jaar’s A.A.L. Speaks for Itself

Ben Grenrock takes a look at the latest LP from Nicolas Jaar's side project, A.A.L. (Against All Logic).
By    March 11, 2018

 Ben Grenrock handles his own PR.

Much ado has been made about how little ado was made about the release of 2012-2017, the latest album from enigmatic electronic producer Nicolas Jaar. Put out under one of the artist’s pseudonyms, A.A.L. (Against All Logic), the record wasn’t promoted whatsoever before stealthily dropping on February 17. However, now that knowledge of the album’s existence has made its way around the net, the website of Jaar’s label, Other People, features a sort of epileptic landing page that autoplays the album while flashing amorous sans-serifs at you modeled after 2012-2017’s cover art. It’s not a full-blown PR campaign, but its makes the unannounced appearance of a full LP from one of the underground’s most esteemed artists feel a little less jarring.

I realize I’m making something of an ado about the record’s unceremonious release right now, but I only do so to point out that on one level the casual drop makes sense, and that on another, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Jaar is at a place in his career where his devoted fans will find, download, and play-on-repeat any B-Side or remix that squirts out of his hard drive; not wanting to jump through the hoops of promoting a pseudonymous record that’s essentially a grab bag of songs that have already debuted in mixes and live videos seems an entirely reasonable circumnavigation.

It’s also possible that Jaar sees the promotional machinery he’s sidestepped as more than just an annoyance—that maybe even the moniker Against All Logic, is a sort of rebuttal of the music industry’s very logical commodification of art (it is an industry after all). Maybe the silent release was a form of protest. Maybe not. Jaar’s past endeavors to politicize his music and image (dubbing 2016’s Sirens political dance music, playing a show at a Palestinian club in the Israeli city of Haifa, packaging an album in an aluminum cube to physicalize the ever-digitizing art form, etc.) seem at once intriguing, laudable, and quixotic. But they, and any debate of them, are dwarfed by one simple fact: the music that comprises 2012-2017 is very, very good.

Most of the songs Jaar has released under his own name are less suited to a party than to an afterparty—where the hypnagogic mind has the couch-space and relative calm to begin to unravel a given tune’s complexities. But 2012-2017 flips that paradigm on its head: Its funk-inflected, soul-injected, house compositions provide the soundtrack to one of the most satisfying and sonically diverse dance parties you may ever attend. Somehow, Jaar achieves this without sacrificing much of the density that’s always made his music such a rewarding listening. Sure, it’s less intellectual than his previous albums, but in a way that feels cathartic rather than reductionist.

One of the most impressive things about Jaar has to be his versatility—the comprehensive mastery with which he deploys vastly different styles of music. Just look at three successive tracks on Sirens: the eerie ambiance of “Leaves” segueing into “No”’s reverb-dipped cumbia before “Three Sides of Nazareth” brings feedback and a sort of electro-new wave feel into the mix. The genre distinctions aren’t important, what is is how well each styling—whatever you’d like categorize it as—is realized. And those are just three songs on one album; the least common denominator between Sirens, retroactive soundtrack Pomegranates, 2010’s Space Is Only Noise, and Jaar’s other releases is not a specific musical quality, but the exemplary and unprejudiced quality of the music.

In addition to its general, up-beat departures from Jaar norms, within the framework of 2012-2017 this incredible versatility is in evidence everywhere you look. It’s deployed in just the first twenty seconds of standout “Such A Bad Way,” in the form of an intro that leans like it’s going the way of a weighty anthem before the vocals wrench it into a breezy, rapturous groove. It’s there in the dissected funk of “Know You,” in the cyberpunk crescendo that is “You Are Going To Love Me And Scream,” and in the subterranean grind of “Hopeless,” which somehow manages to act as the record’s darkest foil to a tracklist comprised of bright lights without sacrificing the danceability of it’s peers.

Most of all, Jaar proves his versatility with the exquisite sampling that forms the record’s structural backbone. Though Jaar has always made use of samples, 2012-2017 finds him implementing them in a far more straightforward manner than ever before. Here, they are the repetitious building blocks of songs, rather than the ornamental or transitional or narrative-building dressings they’ve been in the past. In this more traditional configuration it’s easier to put Jaar’s deployment of hip-hop production’s most emblematic technique into conversation with other sample-based music. And when you do that, it’s glaringly apparent that he’s just as good at sampling as he is at everything else.

As opening track “This Old House Is All I Have” appears to cheekily declare, 2012-2017 is an album of house music, covertly released by a musician who appears discontented with an industry he has, in many ways, conquered and then rejected. In the mythology and the mystery of Nicolas Jaar, these are relevant assertions—ones that deepen the mystique of an artist and allow us to project our assumptions on his music. But when the needle drops on 2012-2017, if all that heady context doesn’t begin to fade to total irrelevancy, there might be something wrong with you. You might need to get out and go dancing a more often.

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