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.