The sounds of “Psychic” — the debut original album of Darkside, a collaboration between Nicolas Jaar ’12 and David Harrington ’09 — drift over listeners like a dense fog, rendering the songs not indistinguishable, but confused and blurry. “I know this is music, but what happened to it?” they ask.
In 2011, Jaar made waves in the music scene with the release of his first album, “Space Is Only Noise.” The album combined elements of downtempo, ambient and dance music, creating a sound riding a thin line between experimental and accessible — a line often crossed multiple times per song. “Space” garnered its fair share of praise, even receiving the prestigious “Best New Music” tag from reviewing king Pitchfork. Many recognized Jaar as at the forefront of a group of promising new artists, and he continued to live up to this image at ambitious live shows, including a five-hour improvised set performed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2012.
Jaar and Harrington came together on the tour for “Space,” with Harrington on guitar for Jaar. The pair began recording under the name “Darkside” and released its first EP together in 2011.
The duo received a fair bit of attention this summer for its album “Random Access Memories Memories,” which remixed Daft Punk’s chart-topping album in full, ripping it apart into tiny pieces and proceeding to reconstitute the tracks in unrecognizable form. With “Psychic,” it is clear the pair approaches its own music the same way.
“Psychic” opens with familiar Jaar — four minutes of drony, ambient noise. An organ slowly swells while a low, plodding beat develops. Choppy strings come in and static slips and slides in the background. Then, nearly 5 minutes in, everything fades out and a strong, head-nodding drum beat fills the empty space. A sparse guitar line by Harrington comes in and the song evolves into a more structured form. This opening track, “Golden Arrow,” which clocks in at more than 11 minutes, features an incredible array of different sounds that constantly shift and change, never content to simply settle into a groove.
The uncertain nature of “Golden Arrow” is characteristic of the whole album — the music on “Psychic” is less about any individual song and more about one theme or sound evolving into another. The songs on “Psychic” comprise a study of groove and sound — Jaar and Harrington don’t seem interested in songwriting, but rather song-building, and when played live, these tracks are often stretched out to twice their length.
Despite the album’s difficult and strange side, most of the songs are immediately enjoyable, and “Psychic” does offer more conventional music. “Paper Trails” has an alt-rock vibe, driven by Harrington’s bluesy guitar with Jaar’s stomping bass flowing along underneath, while “Heart” and “Freak, Go Home” are, at least at times, more immediately recognizable as indie-electronic.
Though much of the album is instrumental, Jaar also sings on it, making use of the variety in his voice, often treating it more as an additional sound than anything else. On “Paper Trails,” he sings almost absurdly low, his voice adding to the bass line, while over the jangly beat of “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen,” his vocal tracks overlap and echo off each other, the lyrics themselves largely incomprehensible.
Perhaps the best part of “Psychic” is that it simply doesn’t sound like much else out there. The combination of bluesy alt-rock, ambient textures and sparse electronics shouldn’t work, but somehow Jaar and Harrington emulsify these elements into a mixture that sounds right. There’s nothing in-your-face about this sound — “Psychic” isn’t concerned with its own distinctiveness.
Jaar and Harrington have crafted an interesting and engaging album, though perhaps one that favors style over substance a little too much. It is a record worth checking out, if just for the experience of listening to it.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the opening track of Nicolas Jaar ’12 and David Harrington’s ’09 album “Psychic” as “Green Arrow.” In fact, the title of the track is “Golden Arrow.”