At this point, “minimal” and “techno” are pretty poor words to describe the work of Nicolas Jaar, a 21-year-old Brown University student by day and controversial club messiah figure by night whose debut LP, Space Is Only Noise, represents either the height of egghead twattery or a new vanguard for electronic music, depending on whom you choose to believe. The specifics of his sound — a bricolage of submerged beats, French Impressionist-sounding piano squiggles, musique concrète doodads, and the occasional glum vocal from the man himself — make detractors’ slinging of the word “pretentious” par for the course. Taken within the dance music infrastructure through which he’s come to prominence, releasing EPs and singles via Wolf + Lamb and other likeminded labels since 2008, remixing greats, and manning dancefloors, some dismay is to be expected when an amenable deep house groove gives way to a patch of Nick Cave gothicism or a recording of children laughing in somebody’s backyard. Add to this some particularly viscous BPM rates, a trademark cemented by last year’s set-killing hit “Time For Us,” which ended with a velocity drop so steep that even the most intrepid DJs didn’t dare try to mix out of it.
It’s obvious (and he has confirmed this himself) that Jaar has less interest in vast sweaty mobs pressed against the barrier than in stressing the honest, organic nature of his output. Space Is Only Noise attempts with every track to subvert genre expectations and exist on its own terms, to the extent that it calls into question whether he’s any less slave to categorization and marketing in his strident resistance to be bound in than the producer who works strictly within conventions and BPM ranges for maximum profit. In this sense, it’s a typically collegiate record: preoccupied with theory, strongly anti-establishment, and a little clumsily self-serious. It’s also an extremely stylish-sounding record, which is odd considering Jaar’s hatred of music’s use as a commodified personal accessory — it’s not hard to imagine the easy kick-clap rhythm, vocodered French, and running water noises of “Colomb,” the album’s glassy second entry, soundtracking the runway show of a major fashion house.
Semantics aside, when Jaar buckles down, he displays technical skill commensurate with the steam-cloud of hype that’s followed him for the past three years. “Keep Me There” begins with a slightly goofy string of vocal syllables — “ba na na da da daaa da na na na,” close-mic’d as if improvised in a dorm room at 4 AM — and slowly butterflies into a cavernous stuttering jam laden with diced sax and super-reverbed keys. His piano facility steps into the spotlight on the following track, “I Got A Woman,” which displays an almost Dilla-esque grasp of texture in its subtle incorporation of horns and delicate vinyl fuzz around a recognizable sample.
Jaar builds an enveloping, cigar-smelling atmosphere through practically imperceptible transitions and uses ambient noise not as a stylistic gimmick but as a vital tool for maintaining a consistent tone while shifting styles so frequently. Yet he confounds this undercurrent seemingly on purpose by inserting spoken-word elements and his own fairly spotty vocals. “Specters of the Future” works as a two-minute summation of the album’s greatest strengths, save for the robo-voiced invocation of the song’s title that he drops in at inopportune moments. He claims Leonard Cohen as his biggest musical hero, which checks out with the affectless bass timbre of his voice, but based on the unconvincing, vapid lyrics that burden the title track, his Comp. Lit. major has yet to fully feed into his songwriting.
Nevertheless, when the final track’s mechanical clicks come to a close, sounding not unlike the revving and popping of his early single “The Student,” it seems like it’s all part of Jaar’s master plan — that even the shortcomings of the album might be somehow purposeful. Such is the exquisite control he holds over his music, his vision evident even in the weakest moments of Space Is Only Noise.