Julia Holter appreciation post.

There are few things in life as haunting as a new release from Julia Holter. Right from the beginning with her first album proper, Tragedy, the central theme of her music has been stimmung. She takes you to a different place, often somewhere you never thought to look, someplace far off that would at first seem outlandish and possibly ridiculous, with strings and voices getting too cosy with each other, only to be ripped up and re-sewn, new patterns always evolving from calm beginnings and a chaotic middle-sections.

She leads you through a world painted by Hieronymus Bosch, at times heavenly, at times dark and desolate and dystopian. Her albums are the sounds of nightmares as well as daydreams, but never letting go of your hand, you always feel safe following Holter’s whim, letting yourself float rather than being dragged through the sonic cities she builds for your ears.

After an uncharactaristically straight-forward album from her, Have You In My Wilderness, she is back and blazing with her latest attempt, Aviary. It opens with a chaotic piece, “Turn The Light On”, which not so much sets the tempo for the rest of the album as it acts as a challenge to whatever idea the listener might have of a new Julia Holter album. It’s the kind of track that manages to shatter expectations by building up new ones, only to open to an album that, through its almost 90 minutes of playing time, never again forces the listener into such submission, but rather rewards those who held through the initial shock. From the climax of that first song onward, it’s one puzzle after the other, slowly revealing the layers of the album, and of Julia Holter.

More than anything, this album feels like seeing Holter in live form, but with a band at least twice the size of her often used trio setup. We’re drawn through ebbs and flows of soundscapes, constantly held on edge and treated to harmonies that can’t help but force a smile on faces from the sunburned to the winterwhites. As when you stand in front of Julia Holter, mostly a controlled force on the stage, you’re never quite sure what to expect from her on Aviary. Not just from song to song, but often from minute to minute, or even just few seconds to few seconds. Even when she challenges your understanding of music, of rhythm, of the way your body moves, she never leaves you restless, on the floor or in your chair, but rather she keeps picking at your mind to draw your attention in to every nook and corner of her own. She doesn’t ever hesitate or play to what she believes you might be looking for. Instead she aims straight for the thing you can only experience through her guidance, and on the back of her constant success in critic’s circles over the past ten years she finds no place she’s not prepared to guide you to.

In that sense she has produced her most daring work since Tragedy, an album that truly takes no idea for granted but seeks to live out all opportunities that present themselves. The magic of Holter is that while following ideas left and right she manages to string them together into a coherent whole and refine them from their sparse elements to become flickering stars on a night sky, perhaps best illustrated on the song “Everyday Is An Emergency”, where a smattering of high-pitched horns verges on the unlistenable, but through subtle rhytm and a decent amount of stubbornness becomes its own therapeutic passage twenty minutes into the album, giving the listener room to breathe and to become intrigued all over again. These horns, that go on for close to four minutes, remind me most clearly of The Knife’s opera-crossover album Tomorrow, In A Year. Another of my favourite albums in a daring place in-between genres, The Knife’s album, clocking in at a similar ~90 minutes, spends large amounts of its time exploring how to create human music out of inherently unhuman sounds such as bird calls. The difference between The Knife and Julia Holter is that where the former attempted to break down the human ear’s expectation of rhythm, the latter is not so much breaking it down as reshaping it.

“How do I know what I think until I say it?” asks Holter on “Les Jeux To You” and it seems this approach is the light that shines through Aviary more than anything. How does she know what a song can become before she makes it? And how does the listener know what music she will enjoy until she hears it all? What expectations will she have until she lets them be met, challenged and reshaped? Julia Holter asks questions of you with her music. All she demands is an open mind and a good listener.

And I for one enjoy having my musical expectations reshaped by Julia Holter over and over again.

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Melpomene.

Twenty-five thousand red leaves on the street
weathered and worn down with tire marks
blazing autumnal traces of trails through
yet another seasonal change
and I stand left without a chance
half a world away
and never close enough
to close my lips around your smile

How to self-destruct and resurrect.

I often find myself stopping abruptly and fully when faced with a task that has even a hint of that well-known scent of “life decision”. Suddenly I can’t even procrastinate in any meaningful way, but rather I just turn into a useless sack of potatoes, just lying there on my bed, scrolling mindlessly to and fro on my cellular device, looking for something — anything — to take my mind off the task that demands a decision of me.

Today I faced this when getting into contact with a potential job opportunity. I had received all the details, I matched the profile quite well, and I had researched the company, only to find my feet moonwalking back to bed, my back resting as if it hadn’t seen a mattress for months, and my eyes choosing only to focus on useless, mindless updates on SoMe.

The worst thing is that I’m well aware. At any second of this pitiful act I’m fully aware of what I’m doing; that I’m hindering myself in whatever definition of “progress” you apply to the situation. I’m not getting further on the job seeking; I’m not trying out words for an email; I’m not getting over my innate fear of phone calls; I’m not even procrastinating in a way that’s useful for some other project of mine.

I’m well aware of my own hindering of myself, and yet I can stay that way for hours. Doing nothing; accomplishing nothing; learning nothing.

I did end up sending a bright email to the contact person in the company. So I’m proud of that accomplishment. And I’ve since then been productive in revamping my CV, finally summoning the courage and creativity to create a brand new one from scratch with a neat home-made visual look. I’m proud of that. And I’ve spent the last one and a half hour of the evening listening to Julia Holter’s new amazing album. In these days of lost patience I’m even proud of that, of sticking with an album of such a long playing time. (Hint: the album is BONKERS good, and you should pick it up at your local record store asap).

So all in all: I’ve had a good and productive day. I just wish I’d gotten around to that email sooner, or been able to do some productive procrastination. I hate this tendency I have of falling into my most useless behaviour when I’m faced with opportunities to do something. So I guess I’m back to using this blog as an outlet for my frustrated self, frustrated over my own psyche, and hoping that writing about my issues will help solve them, as has happened often before.

What more to add… I’m really hooked on expanding on my thesis. The result of the thesis was not what I had hoped, but I understand the score it received. I could have worked harder on it, I could have delivered a more focussed end-product. But lately I’ve been studying to get further insights on trust, fear and how they shape our political landscapes.

Most recently I’ve just finished Eric M. Uslaner’s The Moral Foundations of Trust, and begrudgingly I must confess, that this book is pretty much 1:1 the missing link in my thesis. I feel confident that had I found this book in time, my idea of the project would have been much clearer; I would have been able to better use my theory; and the thesis would have ended as a more developed project in all regards. Oh well.

My hope is to cut my thesis down to some main parts, add the fresh knowledge that I’ve been gaining since, and then turn it into an article to be published in one of the Danish philosophical journals, or maybe a journal with a broader scope in either geography or theme.

Whichever way this all turns out — job, article, life — I’m ready for it. I hope.

It’s all vision.

Choosing is a matter of seeing, and seeing is a matter of believing. So maybe my problem is I don’t believe in the things I should be seeing, leaving me nothing to choose from.

What I did see today was autumn falling to the ground, nature’s palette of rustic colors painting a patterned blanket underneath the trees, as I strolled through the cemetery park, closing in on the city with its noisy cars and noisy people.

My headphones died last week, and I’m suddenly experiencing all the sounds I’ve been able to shield myself off from until now. It’s not that I dislike the sounds of the world. It’s just that I’ve always wanted to live in a movie, and a movie needs a soundtrack.

What I did see today was a road torn up and broken, machinery exhaling dirt into the air, trying its utmost to turn the blue sky grey overhead, but losing that battle in majestic form to the burning Sun that laid its warmth on my late-summer cheeks.

My skin is really good these days. I’m in a good routine of washing my face with lukewarm water each night before bed, and using a good cream after my shower in the morning. Seasonal changes are usually the worst for my face, but so far I seem to be battling it well.

What I did see today were places I’d led you when I showed you my city and wondered when I’d show you my town. I’m still wondering about that, and I wondered, as I wandered on, if you might one day have the same impact on my experience of my town as you’ve had on my experience of my city.

I’ve never been able to determine if I’m a small-town boy or a big-city kinda guy. When I’m in the city, I miss the quietude of the town, the water, the slowness. When I’m in the town, I miss the pace of the city life, the concerts, the tall buildings for people with high hopes.

What I did see today was your picture next to my records. I don’t recall the design that made me put it there, but I haven’t moved it since, except for closer examination. There’s something homely about having you smile at me every time I put on music.

I’ve hit a rough patch of melancholic music today. Max Richter, Beach House, Nils Frahm, Mr Twin Sister. Trying out new headphones at the hifi store, I almost broke down, fifty-fifty from an experience of sound and from a heartbreaking daydream.

What I did see today were all the ways in which I’ve made room for you in my life, and the ways in which I envision making room. And I’m hanging on for dear life here, trying not to turn my tears into an environmental disaster, trying not to confuse heartache with the apocalypse.

One for my baby, and one more for the road.

Blaming the weather, you say, is another way of announcing defeat in regards to sensible clothing. But as the winter draws ever closer, winter here drawing closer since the last days of summer burned our cheeks crimson in late August, and the leaves start leaving the trees to fall to rest on the muddy ground, and the wind picks up its striking force on the unprotected parts of a forehead, it’s always hard for me to look at the world with a fashionable gaze, as if dressing up for the season would change the direction of the rain, as if a fur coat would righten up the Earth’s tilt and bring the Sun back into view from our Northern point.

No, it has nothing to do with clothing. Even hid underneath my warmest hat, I can still feel the cold shake through my human bones. It is, I realise, all about attitude to the environment, and happiness in general.

You see, walking home alone from a day without interaction, I feel the winter hit me like the darkness of space outside of our galaxy. It hits me, not just as a physical reaction, as a pain felt and localised in my material extention. But as a psychological constraint on my joints, on my thinking, forcing my lips shut tight and the short nails of my fingers clenched into my palms, leaving marks lasting even as I take off my layers indoors.

You see, walking with you by my side, or just in my thoughts, as a vibration in my pocket, as a sound in my ear, as a memory lingering from a year past, as a future and as the most real you in flesh and layers, I’m not even aware that the season has lowered the temperature and sent storms sweeping in, throwing nature to the ground to be rebuilt when spring springs, because my body keeps aflame and my smile stays wide as can go, my mind unoccupied with silly human limitations such as mortality and comfort, knowing I could never die an unhappy death with you on my wing and your eyes my last glimpse of a world that put me here to end me, only leaving me a say in how and when, and with whom.

Walking with you by my side, there’s only that. There’s only that to describe the world. Take my hand, and you won’t hear me complain ever again.

By the time it gets dark.

Dark night comes crawling in along the wet side of the road, glistening now under the heat of the street lights as if carrying on its back a million miniature crystals, raising the stakes for all souls, teasing the grandest prize for the mere cost of your life. The sidewalk has been depopulated, and only lonely soles walk the routes laid out by the city map, looking for a place to be, somewhere to escape to, other lonely soles to join in rhythm. It’s a solitary situation, and it’s quiet. It’s always quiet in solitude, as if that’s more than just a human condition, some stronger bond, a flaw in the universal production of noise, rendering the singles muted in a world of static. It’s there, even if we can’t hear it, the universe speaking through its background noise, immense forces fighting a war over areas greater than we can imagine, just imagine: we could fit 1,3 million Earth planets inside our big, red Sun. There’s no reason to be concerned with the darkness come creeping in here on a universal scale. But this is not the universal scale. This is the human condition that we’re kept in, and the darkness does form our lives, putting us to bed, deciding our diets, symbolising our deaths. The dark is the impenetrable mystery that keeps us up at night before ultimately laying us to rest. And it’s the home of longing and nostalgia, the dark matter in which I still see you clear as day.

Glimpse of you.

My chin is smooth, though I know you prefer it rugged against your skin when the lights go out and there are only tactile elements left for the orientation of body parts. But it doesn’t stop you–my smooth chin–from scaling me, moving your own soft parts against me as we turn limbs into webs and find ourselves caught in constellations we neither can nor want to break free from. I just pull you closer, my chin resting against the side of your neck, and place my mark on you.

I tremble. I feel your lips on me too.