Nicolas Jaar has rarely sounded as combative—or inspired—as he is on this club-focused LP.
Some time away has maybe heightened the album's impact. Jaar's last major release was in February 2018, the Against All Logic album 2012 - 2017, where feel-good, sample-driven house, soul and disco were the prevailing moods. At the time, Andrew Ryce used words like "pastiche" and "generic" in a review, confirming the feeling that we'd come to expect, or even demand, a level of innovation from Jaar. He's an artist who, since getting his break as a teenager, had become a headline act off the back of strange, singular and often downbeat music. This seemed to stem from an uncommon curiosity. Away from the main tides of the international music scene these past couple years, Jaar has pursued a dizzying array of projects, including an artist residency at Het HEM in Amsterdam, a soundtrack for the famed Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, and principal production work on the incredible FKA twigs album MAGDALENE. What appeared to plenty of people as a time of inactivity was, it seems, an intense period of creative development.
That Beyoncé is the first voice we hear on 2017 - 2019 is instructive of the bold new direction. Hers and Sean Paul's vocals are lifted from "Baby Boy" and layered over a crackling broken beat, an uncanny string-like instrument and inviting synth chords. A sample of Luther Ingram's 1972 soul song "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" appears on track two, a degraded house cut, thus establishing a template of sorts: 2017 - 2019 is an album of stylistic leaps, radiant melodies, difficult-to-place sounds and red herrings. Back-to-back opening tracks with instantly recognisable sample flips, for example, sets up an expectation of many more to follow. Instead, there are none. That is unless you can spot the source of the hip-hop loop on "With An Addict." Jaar casually filters it into the arrangement to create a half-time contrast with the main drums, a rolling footwork/jungle-style pattern that features percussion reminiscent of the "Apache" break. The poignant, daybreak melody caps a track that bundles the album's strongest qualities.
The stylistic leaps I mentioned are actually a bit of an audio illusion later in the album. Perhaps you could describe "Alarm," "Deeeeeeefers" "Faith" and "Penny," which appear consecutively, as all being house and/or techno. Each features a four-on-the-floor kick pattern and is made for the dance floor. But there's a significant scope of differences and ideas between them. The two-minute-long breakdown/build in "Deeeeeeefers" might be dismissed by some EDM artists as being OTT, with Jaar ballooning his damaged synth lines until the whole thing plops back into place as though nothing has happened. "Faith," on which he flexes the choral range of his voice, could have been signed to Innversions were it not so weird. The fantastic "Penny," meanwhile, is a 142-BPM techno track that less dogmatic DJs should be into—its chargrilled timbre, matched with groovy percussion and emotive melodies, is unlike most modern techno productions. Along with the buckled drum cut "Alarm," these tracks seem to gain inspiration from the subversion of templates that in the past Jaar himself has worked with.
All of which returns us to the idea of replenishment. The military man on the record's artwork, the copious levels of distortion, the brazen use of samples, the warping of genre tropes—on the surface it all feels like a "fuck you," perhaps at the state of things, perhaps at Jaar's own artistic history. If there is anger here, though, it's complicated, and it's almost always offset by hope or damaged beauty. Perhaps, instead, the noise is an alternate means of expressing something that before found a different form in Jaar's music. The hazy peculiarity of the past is now manifested in different materials and through some force. Maybe it's an idea to consider during the record's only moment of relative calm: "You (Forever)," the closer. The tender vibe here is reminiscent of Space Is Only Noise, the 2011 album that established his name, but the sounds are of a far-off time and culture. A decent sign of an artist evolving, in other words.