A Big­ger, Shinier Cage

Luke Goodsell on Ju­lia Holter’s ‘Aviary’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

“The first thing I ever recorded was a cover of Brit­ney Spears’ ‘Crazy’,” the avant-garde mu­si­cian Ju­lia Holter tweeted re­cently. “Re­ally em­pha­sized the ‘crazy’ as­pect. I re­mem­ber peo­ple think­ing it was scary.” Like Spears’ candy-coated, lovesick in­ti­ma­tion of mad­ness, there’s a rest­less du­al­ity to Holter’s fifth and lat­est record, Aviary, an un­pre­dictable sonic land­scape where a sud­den ex­al­ta­tion of love can in­ter­rupt a tum­ble into the abyss – and vice versa, of­ten within the same song.

Aviary is os­ten­si­bly pitched as a re­sponse to, and flight from, both the ca­coph­ony of the mod­ern world and the chat­ter­ing voices in one’s head. As a metaphor for so­ci­ety’s cur­rent mo­ment, you could do worse than an en­clo­sure for our feath­ered friends: tech­nol­ogy has seem­ingly al­lowed us to live en­riched lives of pos­si­bil­ity, but the free­dom is an il­lu­sion – we’ve just built a big­ger, shinier cage for our­selves, and the noise is over­whelm­ing. Holter, who was born in Mil­wau­kee but grew up and lives in Los An­ge­les, should know: the City of An­gels is one of the world’s great cap­i­tals of dis­con­nec­tion. It’s also a thriv­ing hub of il­lu­sion and es­cape, el­e­ments that the mu­si­cian em­braces here.

A clas­si­cally schooled com­poser, Holter tends to ex­per­i­ment with airy, ec­cen­tric pop shapes, in which ethe­real, some­times pro­cessed vo­cals, string sec­tions and sparse elec­tron­ics com­min­gle in dream­like trance. Aviary catches fire with con­sid­er­ably more abra­sive­ness. Sec­onds into open­ing track “Turn the Light On”, a fairy­tale

harp is swiftly set upon by a small army of shriek­ing strings, syn­the­sis­ers, and skit­tish jazz drums that lunge and fall back, ready to col­lapse. Over an or­ches­tral col­lage that var­i­ously evokes the stab­bing arch­ness of Bernard Her­rmann and more re­cent Scott Walker, Holter’s voice trem­bles as she strains to stay afloat in the din. “It’s all the winged things fly­ing around in the head, the mem­o­ries and cur­rent thoughts, all at once,” Holter has said of Aviary. This wall of noise is some­thing of a pivot for an artist whose pre­vi­ous work, 2015’s Have You In My Wilder­ness, dis­tilled her more ob­scure lean­ings into crys­talline pop. “Turn the Light On” is the sound of wild wings thrash­ing against the ceil­ing of that record’s so-called ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

The sub­se­quent sense of un­ease runs deep. Over the tinny, splin­tered per­cus­sion and Van­ge­lis synths of the aptly named “Ev­ery­day Is an Emer­gency”, Holter’s pitch-shifted voice dances around dron­ing vo­cals that call up an­gels and demons. She sings of “a hun­dred minds” and “the clang­ing in the king­dom”, while in­stru­men­tal­ist Tashi Wada’s bag­pipes wheeze like the last gasps of a car horn. Even the nom­i­nal ex­pres­sions of love scan as fraught. “I feel so bloody good,” Holter grum­bles on “Un­der­neath the Moon”, a drunk find­ing a bar open at dawn. On “Chaitius”, cheer­ily named af­ter the Latin term for a mis­er­able wretch, Holter dead­pans at her most Lau­rie An­der­son. “Joy— joy— joy”, she stam­mers through pro­cessed re­verb, an op­er­at­ing sys­tem get­ting a feel for its hu­man host. If the sen­ti­ments come across as de­tached, the mu­sic says oth­er­wise: harp­si­chords, strings, and a sparkling cho­ral ar­range­ment lift the song into cheesy tran­scen­dence, like a Shirley Temple–mu­si­cal ver­sion of heaven.

The eclec­ti­cism is noth­ing new. Holter’s first three re­leases can­vassed an­cient Greek (2011’s Tragedy), clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture (2012’s Ek­sta­sis), and ’50s MGM mu­si­cals (2013’s Loud City Song), which has meant she of­ten gets boxed in as cham­ber pop, or af­forded com­par­isons to An­der­son, Joanna New­som and Kate Bush. None of these is un­flat­ter­ing, but they’re easy short­hand and gen­der spe­cific; her sonic kin surely num­ber con­tem­po­rary pop’s for­ward guard, too – So­phie, Charli XCX and Kanye West, for starters – not to men­tion her for­ma­tive in­flu­ences such as Robert Wy­att, and a healthy dose of Clus­ter & Eno. Like the best pop sa­vants, Holter seems in touch with a time­less space, where dig­i­tal trick­ery and ana­log in­stru­men­ta­tion com­mune with dis­tant myth and some imag­ined sound of the fu­ture, in­tu­it­ing the

If ev­ery era feels like the in­com­ing apoca­lypse to those liv­ing in it, then the per­sonal sanc­tu­ary record has yielded some of mu­sic’s most en­dur­ing vi­sions.

sub­con­scious, the mag­i­cal – and here, in what emerges as the Aviary’s the­matic mis­sion, build­ing a sanc­tu­ary away from the world in which she’s drown­ing.

Or, as Holter puts it: “Maybe it’s a mat­ter of lis­ten­ing to and gath­er­ing the seem­ing mad­ness, of form­ing some­thing out of it and en­vi­sion­ing a fu­ture.” If ev­ery era feels like the in­com­ing apoca­lypse to those liv­ing in it, then the per­sonal sanc­tu­ary record has yielded some of mu­sic’s most en­dur­ing vi­sions, from Pet Sounds to Low to Ho­mogenic. Holter like­wise bus­ies her­self with build­ing her sonic ark, and in the process re­con­nects with a for­got­ten, es­o­teric uni­verse run­ning par­al­lel to the ev­ery­day. On the al­bum’s cover art she ap­pears clad in a red PVC rain­coat rem­i­nis­cent of the eerie iconog­ra­phy of Ni­co­las Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now – both drowned child and mis­chievous gnome – and mak­ing an oc­cult hand sign, or sim­ply a Vul­can salute, in a vor­tex of stars and magic cir­cles. Dur­ing “Voce Simul”, Holter’s chants float out over an elec­tric Miles bassline, an­i­mat­ing the nar­ra­tor’s will to go out­side. “I gath­ered my­self, in a dis­tant muse,” she sings. (Holter can evoke a very spe­cific state of liv­ing in and be­side one­self si­mul­ta­ne­ously.) On “Col­ligere”, what might as well be an in­vented lan­guage sprin­kles across mi­nor-key synths and am­bi­ent washes to cre­ate a sense of deep, sooth­ing iso­la­tion. But there’s

room for play­ful­ness in this new world, too: “Whether” punches through the con­fu­sion with bub­bling al­beit anx­ious car­ni­val pop, while “I Would Rather See” bobs like Holter’s de­ranged take on ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”.

Distin­guish­ing Holter from her songs’ var­i­ous nar­ra­tors is a thorny task, but a dull one: it as­sumes there’s some kind of truth to be ex­ca­vated. Holter has bris­tled at the sug­ges­tion that her lyrics mean some­thing per­sonal, push­ing back against that age-old no­tion that women must nec­es­sar­ily be emo­tive and re­veal­ing while male artists are free to tell sto­ries and in­vent. “Ev­ery time I do an in­ter­view, peo­ple ask me what [the mu­sic] has to do with my per­sonal life,” she com­plained to The Guardian back in 2016. “I think it’s re­ally weird; I don’t un­der­stand why it mat­ters. It’s not like art is just sup­posed to be this re­veal­ing of one’s per­sonal life.”

It’d be oth­er­wise easy to mis­take the record’s lead sin­gle, “I Shall Love 2”, as an in­vi­ta­tion to examine the artist un­adorned. “That is all, that is all,” she be­gins, speak­ing in her ev­ery­day Cal­i­for­nian lilt, the kind one imag­ines she might use to or­der from the deli at Whole Foods. It’s a de­cep­tively ba­nal in­tro­duc­tion, but “Love”, as be­fits its ti­tle, is a tricky song, and a gor­geous one. Crisp syn­thetic drums, re­call­ing Sui­cide’s “Cheree”, and loop­ing synths usher in the record’s clear­est vo­cal, and its most star­tling. “I am in love, what can I do?” the nar­ra­tor pon­ders, as though this is the great­est of rid­dles, even as so­ci­ety dis­in­te­grates around her. Be­fore long, she’s an­swered by a multi-tracked mini cho­rus of Holters. “I shall love, I shall love,” they as­sert, the un­ruly parts of the psy­che re­fus­ing to be re­pressed by or­der and ra­tio­nal­ity. The call and re­sponse swells to a phan­tom spir­i­tual, the singer pulled at by forces earthly and ce­les­tial. It’s fol­lowed, se­quen­tially at least, by a pre­quel, “I Shall Love 1”, which plays as both echo and pre­mo­ni­tion – time mov­ing cir­cuitously in its nar­ra­tor’s mind. “I am wait­ing for you, come on,” Holter sings over an in­sis­tent, al­most tribal march. The ro­man­tic has taken over its host, turn­ing them into a cult of two – a haven away from the world’s clam­our­ing ir­ri­ta­tions.

If it’s merely an­other elab­o­rate cage, then at least it’s one ac­cord­ing to Holter’s own de­sign – equal parts sweet and de­ranged. Brit­ney would be proud.

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