Julia Holter’s third masterpiece in a row: Have You In My Wilderness
When you walk into Julia Holter’s world the first thing you notice is that everything is coated in a glistening haze. She’s calling out through the fog, but mostly all you see is that soft blanketing mist. Figures and shapes appear as distant silhouettes and the neon night lights shine and pop brightly.
Over four increasingly audacious records, Holter has established herself as one of the finest pop songwriters of our time. Her brave and strange song structures combined with these immensely nuanced soundscapes transcend her music above most of her singer-songwriter contemporaries.
Holter’s history in composition and her affinity for “high brow” art forms resonate throughout her spectacular repertoire. She draws influence from literature, theatre and classical music to craft these sophisticated worlds that are still entirely accessible and exist well within the realms of “pop”. It remains one of the most noteworthy elements of her music but is never the central focus; the sound worlds Holter crafts using a vast array of unique sonic techniques is what’s truly breathtaking about her work.
Her attention to sonic detail has always been prominent but on 2014’s Loud City Song the sounds extended outward and upward into new territory. The songs were bolder and bigger than those on 2013’s equally special Ekstasis, with some of the best tracks showcasing a haunted and angry element rarely exploited in her previous work. Tracks like “Maxims I & II” and “Horns Surrounding Me” were like triumphant, monolithic tragedies set in frenzied bars and frightening alleyways. These were juxtaposed with whispered dream ballads and quirky Regina Spektor-esque pop songs that all somehow coalesced into a narrative that expertly elicit a wide array of emotions.
Have You In My Wilderness uses the same narrative and structural philosophy but the story being told is different. The unique aesthetic Holter established for the near-perfect Loud City Song has been re-interpreted for the Have You In My Wilderness setting. Holter is outdoors now and it is the vastness of the wilderness that we are hearing, not the cluttered beauty of urban living so brilliantly executed on Loud City Song.
In sum: you don’t listen to a Holter record; you experience it. Cliché, I know, but the parallels between Holter’s music and high literature and theatre are too obvious to be overlooked. She constructs self-referential worlds with her albums that read like epic novels or plays. The sonic textures and themes interact in a way that only the best-written characters can and the breadth of emotion conveyed is as honest as a timeless tragedy.
The album opens with two of Holter’s most accessible pop tracks. “Feel You”, the album’s lead single, invites listeners into her world with its sunny and playful melody that bounces around like a bunny in a field. “Silhouette” is less playful but opens with this soft and delicate beat that comfortably nestles the listener in preparation for the ensuing structural and sonic chaos contained within the middle part of the album.
Before the end of “Silhouette”, the album embarks on this remarkable sonic shift. The song kind of splits and falls apart, drifting into a rabbit hole of confusion led by an ascending string motif that’s akin to the crescendo in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” The song descends into a void reserved for the most audacious pop songwriting and will quickly separate the pop purists from those more interested in Holter’s weirder work.
However, a preference for her longer, otherworldly work is not pop snobbery. These songs are generally just more aesthetically and structurally brave than her sugary sweet shorter songs. Like on Loud City Song and Ektasis, the two longest songs are again the best pair. “Lucette Stranded on the Island” and “Betsy on the Roof” – both over six minutes and thematically linked – showcase the best of the sound-worlds Holter has to offer. “Lucette…” is an extended dream pop ballad that builds and swells like a terrifying avalanche, all crystal white and lurching forward on its own steam. “Betsy…” combines spoken word with jazz and classical instrumentation to craft one of her most brooding and experimental songs that is reminiscent of her art pop contemporary and closest sonic link, Jenny Hval.
The oscillation of different sounds is most extreme at the commencing of side B. “Everytime Boots” is perhaps the most demented honky-tonk you’ll ever hear and without question one of Holter’s strangest songs to date. She is particularly maniacal and wild here; you can hear her smirking and dancing through the rollicking beat. It’s a dreamy country cabaret (if you could even imagine such a thing) that comes off surprisingly not as confused as it sounds. The closest sonic link here is possibly Jullee Cruise, though the two occupy wholly different zones in the strange world of art pop. “Everytime Boots” proves, again, that Holter can cast a wide net of influences and somehow wrap it all into a neat package that still very much channels the uniqueness of her aesthetic.
Like the best of her art pop contemporaries – Ariel Pink, James Ferraro, FKA twigs, Grimes – Holter is looking backward in order to go forward. She combines modern production techniques like electronic beats and glitch with an affinity for classical instruments and pop structures. She’s looking further back than most, gleaning styles and ideas from the last century of music and bundling them together into a neat package so clearly her own. She’s our generation’s Kate Bush, fusing electronic and analogue elements into these romantic neo-classical gestures that have consistently resulted in some of the most intriguing albums of the last decade.