On his debut album, New York electronic artist, Nicolas Jaar, finds himself in a stylistic bind. No matter how effectively he tries to split the difference between slinking dance music and minimalist techno, he cannot end up drawing comparisons to either Matthew Dear for the former or James Blake for the latter. On songs like “Keep Me There” and “Problems With the Sun,” Jaar employs a deep and bubbly vibrato that has significant interest value, but one that reminds me far too much of Matthew Dear’s work on his 2010 album, Black City. Similarly, the slower songs of Space Is Only Noise, like opener, “Colomb,” are spare with dabblings of handclaps and light bass, but I cannot listen to them and not think of the shy dubstep of James Blake’s newest self-titled release. It also doesn’t help that Jaar heavily auto-tunes his voice on “Colomb,” which only draws more attention to Blake’s use of it on his album, which was employed to significantly greater effect.
Space Is Only Noise is a very good album, but what holds it back from being excellent, aside from that originality issue, is that Jaar utilizes a certain restraint that tempers the album’s material to the point where the most rambunctious numbers are seriously lacking in the exploitation of their inherent creepiness. “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See” is the album’s focal point, and rightfully so, as it is the only song in which we see Jaar let loose, railing off non sequiturs in that Dear-like intonation like “Replace the word ‘space’ with ‘drink’ and forget it/Space is only noise if you can see.” “Grab a calculator and fix yourself” is such a gloriously random line in the song, and Jaar does not waste it by diluting the listener’s singular mood with calming falling-sea-shells-on-a-window-sill percussion that was characteristic of Pantha du Prince’s Black Noise, as he does on much of Space Is Only Noise. Jaar clearly knows what he’s doing here, but he needs to figure out how that “what” is going to be different from that of the formative electronic artists making music these days. Space Is Only Noise is a good start, but one that indicates some clear space for improvement. And if that space is only noise, then Jaar can just tune my critiques out… but that’s only if he can see them, and I’m not sure that he can. God I hate when I get punny.