Which do you prefer to listen to: whispers or computer whirrs? Which do you find more moving: piano keys or bass blasts? Which will alienate you faster: pentatonic scales or three straight minutes of glitching electronics? Telas, the new record by electronic producer Nicolas Jaar, presents all of these choices, shaken in a mixer and poured out in a cocktail glass: “difficult” music for the devoted listener; a turmeric fizz filled with grapefruit and olive juice.
This is the third Nicolas Jaar album of 2020. First was the second Against All Logic project 2017-2019, a marching industrial survey of techno subgenera. Next came Cenizas, an ambient record of sacred hums and whispers. Now we have Telas, which is even less definable than its two immediate predecessors. Microsound and Gamelan mingle among organ drones in progressive song structures that tumble from idea to idea. If this gives you no idea what the record will sound like, nothing I say will. It’s a truly experimental work, one that will challenge and reward those willing to brave the initial confounding listens.
If Jaar’s three 2020 records are to be taken as a statement of artistic intention, the goal is to move away from melody, at least as we most intimately know it. 2017-2019 is a heel turn from the hugely catchy house found on the previous Against All Logic record. While still rooted in dance music, 2017-2019 is built on rhythm and texture, usually metallic and often harsh. Cenizas, the first new record under his own name since 2016’s Sirens, carries the softest moments of Jaar’s work into more introspective spaces, which are defined by carefully curated sound rather than melody. What the saxophone is playing is the focus of a track off Sirens, while the exact timbre of that saxophone might carry a whole song on Cenizas.
Telas ventures farther down the path both 2017-2019 and Cenizas began walking. It is easily Jaar’s most avant-garde work, an hour-long piece divided into four tracks than run almost seamlessly. While previous Jaar songs unraveled in relatively straightforward directions, tracks on Telas move in three dimensions. One sound can trigger four new instruments to pull everything into a new shape. This morphing defines the way the music here functions.
One of Jaar’s greatest talents is his deftness with texture. His sound on previous releases has been defined by drums that exist somewhere between gated and ethereal, as well warbling and bubbling synths that warble and bubble and drones wrapped in layers of gauze and gravel. While his aesthetic has become increasingly narrow, he blasts it open on Telas. It is full of piercing microtones and heavy chords, spanning a larger range of sound than any previous Jaar record.
These are songs that operate on hinges. In each piece, there are a series of transition points that can be mapped by time stamps and attempts to describe the sounds that occur within each marked section. Jaar has described Telas as “the fabrics of a construction,” which is both frustratingly vague and the best description of the record possible. Take “Telahora”: the points of transition I can count exist at 0:00, 2:23, 6:07, 7:34, 10:29, 13:19, and 15:32. But another listener could pick a group of seven entirely different moments and make a convincing argument for why they represent each section of the song. That’s the kind of music that Telas is.
Certainly, there are moments throughout this record that are ecstatic. Skip to 3:30 in “Telahumo” and you will hear strings turn into synths in a gorgeous collage of melody. However it necessitates that you listen through those previous three and a half minutes of “Telahumo,” and really, who are we kidding, the previous two tracks as well (this is not a record you just pick up a song from). Sometimes, it can feel like a patience testing exercise. Other times, the minutes of machine music feel like necessary steps towards Jaar’s most enlightened phrases. When revisiting the moments you love on Telas, there’s an inclination to spend more time with the more oblique sections, building new relationships with each song while searching for what already makes sense.
Often when describing “difficult” music, we say that repeated listens will “peel back the layers” or “reveal inherent structures.” It can’t be promised that this will be true of Telas. There isn’t necessarily something to discover here, no secret pop to be found in all of the experimental. It’s not a release to wade through looking for hidden truths or meanings or melodies. Rather, the best method for exploration is to get lost in Jaar’s fabrics. They’re rich and complex textiles woven with threads that simply don’t belong together, nylon next to gold, new age next to jazz, and yet there is some reason to every combination, a logic that pervades the whole project. Jaar’s vision is here, we can feel it, even if we will never see it in full.
Label: Other People