Julia Holter is one big enigma wrapped in a riddle. The 30 year old Californian debuted in 2011 with one of the most inexplicably enticing albums mixing ambient and pop music, based on Euripidies plays, riddled with ancient imagery, straight jazz snippets, and her ever-lulling voice. Her debut album had a very lo-fi feel, which doesn’t necessarily come off as an aesthetic choice, but the incredibly intricate songwriting and surprising orchestration showed the classically trained Holter’s prowess. The album is filled with small soundscapes and concrete sounds but they all add up to one giant labyrinth of confusion. Each lead you might get from the songs are somehow misleading, will in part be undermined, or simply steered into a completely different direction in the next piece. The Falling Age’s droning strings and slowly moving surfaces turn into the minimalist, Laurie Anderson tinged Goddess Eyes, then jumping into the quasi-religious Interlude and turning into the concrete ambiance based Celebration, which is more of a space than an actual song for the first half. It all might sound random, but Holter has the necessary compositional chops to pull such a stretch off with grace. Even if plagued by a quite limited production, Tragedy surprises by sheer force of imagination.
Laurie Anderson is a good starting point for her next riddle Ekstasis (Four Gardens is obviously a tribute to Anderson’s Big Science title track). Her 2012 album, like her debut, phases in and out of genres with such ease, that her trajectory actually turns into a focal point of her album. From the mainly electro-pop In the same room, which still inexplicably has a harpsichord in its center, to the ambiental Boy in the moon, and then to the vocoder based Goddess Eyes II, she takes a sort of artistic detachment to heart, the sort best embodied on Anderson’s Big Science. It’s not a disillusionment, it’s not blasé indifference, it’s a sort of ancient artist socially responsible entity coldness. It’s not that Anderson and Holter are not passionate about what they sing about, but they are very conscious of the artistic craftsmanship that goes into their work. It’s not just momentarily inspired melody flowing in and out of the ether, it’s honed skill, practiced craft and of course immeasurable talent. But where Anderson’s Big Science was very straightforward about it’s themes, Holter’s Ekstasis keeps an air of uncertainty for each song, speaking only in allusions and possible references. And yet each song comes together as a sort of short story. Still hard to wrap your head around, Ekstasis surprises in a very fascinating way, but doesn’t have the surprise effect Tragedy had before it, and a certain pattern starts to emerge, confessional, yet not personal, clearly focused on the skillful aspect of composition, clearly not heart on sleeve, cry on shoulder pop.
And then Loud City Song managed to disrupt even these minimal traces of a pattern. Her third album released in 2013 and based on the novella Gigi by Colette, reaches even further with its surprising arrangements and influences. Holter loses the electronic, ambient sheen and opts for an almost completely acoustic approach, abundant in horns, strings and putting her voice even more in the center of the narrative. She switches with even more ease between spoken word and very slippery melodies, surrounded by horns, and accompanied by errant pianos and meandering bass lines. Being based on a straightforward narrative, Loud City Song is the most coherent of her first three releases, and yet she still manages to keep you guessing. You never get the actual happenings of the plot, you get only minimal events, small impressions, fleeting glances at an ever changing landscape. She might have renounced the clearly ambiental side of her work, but still she constructs a bustling city in a very orchestral way. While the sounds themselves have turned more palpable than on her previous releases, the process by which she constructs her sceneries has become more abstract. An incredible listen, with new facets with each repeat, Loud City Song recaptures the surprising nature of her debut, steering into yet another direction.
So what could come next? How long can she keep mixing avant-garde and classical composition with pop and a commercial format and get away with it so enticingly?
Her latest, Have You In My Wilderness, came out last month and yet again confirmed the immense talent that Holter has a songwriter. She still keeps the more accessible aspect of Loud City Song, the acoustic orchestration, but turns it into more of a pop backing than a narrative device. While more traditional and tamer, her songs allow her inventive nature to show in the more classical areas of melody and harmony, rather than in thematic approach and avant-garde rendering. It functions very much like a Beatles album in that regard. She doesn’t break new terrain melodically, her lines are just incredibly well written and just stunningly beautiful. Her voice still slides up and down very theatrically, but in a controlled way (Lucette stranded on the island), her piano is still wandering (Betsy on the roof), and at the most surprising moments a saxophone solo pops out of nowhere (Sea calls me home, Vasquez) and hits you right in the chest. While she lacks the instinctual touch of the Lennon/McCartney dynamic, she makes up for it through scholarly knowledge and skill in directing her imagination into the exactly right harmonic spaces.
Sea calls me home the first single of the album very clearly encapsulates this specifically musical artistry with its baroque overtones, sunny, afternoon light and a chorus you just cannot get rid of. Everytime Boots further sustains the Beatles analogy with its playfulness, and driving, yet quiet drums, but where the Fab Four had a penchant for narratives and miniature tableaus, Holter has, like always, very suggestive, yet imprecise lyrics, feeling very heartfelt, yet inexplicable. She systematically keeps her artistic detachment from her work, presenting herself as a great artist, but refraining from showing us any more than just that, her art, which in a pop context is very surprising, compared to the typically confessional format.
It might sound conservative, stiff and cold, but Holter’s latest release is none of those things. Very clearly a construct, a very skillfully crafted series of stories, each with its unique and surprising twists and turns, Have You In My Wilderness ends with probably the only truly direct personal address of the album, a soft bookend ballad about uncertain love, which doubles as a subtle explanation to the audience of where they have just been.
And what a luxuriant wilderness it has been.