In 2013, electronic music suddenly seems a whole lot less electronic. Perhaps embarrassed by the bro-ness of EDM, the genre’s elite artists seem keen to distance themselves through rock riffs, funk throwbacks, even orchestral works. This might explain the return of Nile Rogers' famous guitar chops on Random Access Memories, Matmos' collab with the Arditti String Quartet, or Flea and Joey Waronker bringing arena-rock credentials to Atoms For Peace.
It's easy to see why Nicolas Jaar—Ivy League graduate, label impresario, musical sophisticate—would want to find his own distance from mainstream, dance-oriented products. With the strikingly assured Space Is Only Noise (2011), the Chilean-American had already announced his arrival as a composer in pursuit of artistic distinction.
And in 'Psychic', Jaar and band mate Dave Harrington have made one of the year's best albums. But what is it, exactly?
Certainly, it is an elaborate studio project—a "headphone record." In the 1970s, this was the territory of prog-rock and psychedelica. The domain was recently reclaimed by alt-electronic acts such as Caribou and Fuck Buttons. In Jaar's version, also, we get a lot of sophisticated references and expensive-sounding stuff: synth stabs from Vangelis, authentic Hammond organ farts, and a deliciously thick low end.
It's space-rock, for sure. But inner space. Jaar manages to conjure an expansive emotional landscape within an inward and rather constrained palette of sound. 'Psychic' is a microcosmos, a galaxy of infinitely small gestures. And at this tiny scale, every move feels important. You notice the arrival of some unidentifiable percussion, somewhere behind your head. A record crackle at the high end, over Harrington's delicate fretwork seems important, somehow. And then there's the easy intimacy, on "Sitra," of a tinkering organ straying, as if by accident, into the left channel. Paradoxically, one feels the presence of a grandeur, a Jon Brion-like intensity, in these miniature contraptions. Jaar's controlled implosion packs a heavy pull.
This intimacy works beautifully against the album’s haunted influences. At the beginning of "Paper Trails," you might have thought you were listening to a Nick Cave track. To add to the chill, the song is driven by a guitar lick that might have been lifted from "Black Magic Woman." Elsewhere, 'Psychic' travels the darker byways of American Soul. The close, spooky vibe of “Metatron” recalls the Delfonics, Bohannon, or the Isaac Hayes of "Walk On By." There are echoes of Curtis Mayfield's cinematic ghetto dystopianism: swelling, menacing strings and dramatic silences.
In the 90s, these noir references would have been labeled “acid jazz,” or possibly “trip-hop”—especially combined with the wide berth Jaar gives to conventional dance rhythms. When we do get something resembling a propulsive beat, he keeps it to a simple kick-snare figure. In "Paper Trails," a pulse drops in halfway to remind us that this is, after all, electronic music. 'Psychic'’s drift away from the dancefloor is made clear, again, in Jaar’s famous insistence on slowness. There's not much here that creeps above 100 BPM. This puts Darkside more in the company of ambient artists like John Hopkins, or Mount Kimbie.
Slowness gives Jaar the space he needs to work his magic. But there's a fatigue associated with being atmospheric, a risk that the spell might wear off before the end. It nearly does, particularly in those moments where Jaar's limits as a musician can't be saved by the beauty of the concept. "Greek Light" is plagued by an awkward repeating vocal riff that's only slightly less grating for being looped and overlapped. Elsewhere, the dangers of being at a genre’s edge appear to put Jaar in a state of anxiety. He seems worried that we might not notice him breaking the rules. Will the whole project be less bewitching if we were to just think of it as down-tempo neo-soul? You can sense this fear at the halfway mark, toward the end of "Paper Trails." As if unsure, Jaar calls in the synth pads to bring digitalism back in. They sound thin; regardless, we didn't need them.
For the most part, though, 'Psychic' is an achievement. The insistence on the analog, Jaar's battle against the clichés of his medium, produces a rare and seductive lack of clarity. Darkside’s debt to Pink Floyd’s album has no doubt been exaggerated. There is nothing so bright about this record, nothing so angular or prismatic. Sonically, Jaar wants to chisel off the edges, to rediscover something organic, something blurred and unstable. That this is an obsession of the moment makes it no less beautiful. Harrington’s tiny scratches on the guitar strings will remind you that, behind everything, there are skilled hands to take us home.
01. Golden Arrow
04. Paper Trails
05. The Only Shrine I’ve Seen
06. Freak, Go Home
07. Greek Light