Aviary Julia Holter Domino It has been three years since Julia Holter’s last proper studio album, 2015’s dazzling Have You in My Wilderness. The Los Angeles singer and multi-instrumentalist has branched out plenty in the meantime, scoring films both live and on record and revisiting her older songs live in the studio for last year’s In the Same Room. She also has collaborated with electronic composer Laurel Halo, cult folk singer Linda Perhacs and experimental musicians Tashi and Yoshi Wada. That bold spirit of connectivity across genres certainly informs Aviary, a 90-minute album rife with shifting voices and experimentation — often in mid-thought. While Holter’s past works usually sprang from the germinating inspiration of some outside text, whether it was Euripides, Virginia Woolf or the movie Gigi, she has said the new album was born from improvisation, with more precise inspirations only manifesting later.
Whatever its origin, Aviary is a dense and daring reaction to the stately singersongwriter vibe of Have You in My Wilderness, taking that album’s whimsical ornateness to operatic new heights. The opening Turn the Light On doubles as a gnashing ambush, evoking the Dirty Three with its turbulent clatter of drums and viola while Holter sounds equally free in her singing. She doesn’t couch her free-range approach from there, borrowing phrases from the romance language Occitan on Chaitius and entwining eerie bagpipes and trumpet for uneasy listening on Everyday is an Emergency. Employing a technique called hocketing, where singing voices interrupt each other, Les Jeux to You intentionally recalls the grotesque extremes of the online echo chamber.
In another decidedly current touch for a composer who often looks back across centuries past, Holter airs anxieties about Donald Trump’s recent brinkmanship with North Korea before a trickle of nightmarish imagery on Words I Heard: “Frequent missile talk / Slurping on the words I heard from the wretched zone.” That’s not to say there aren’t easier points of entry to be found: the twopart I Shall Love rivals Phil Spector’s ecstatic Wall of Sound, including a gorgeous culmination in the first part where Holter channels Nico. Her voice is consistently impressive as it mood-swings from placid to rabid and many points between.
For all the bravura layering at work across the album, however, there is a sparse piano ballad in the form of In Gardens’ Muteness and a pair of hard-earned comedowns in Another Dream and the closing Why Sad Song. Holter’s arrangements expand and contract thrillingly from song to song, and even from moment to moment; the elastic and active Underneath the Moon summons six backing players, only to splinter into wonky diffusion by the end. As an act of sustained risk-taking, Aviary is immersive and sprawling in a way that few albums are encouraged to be, and it will very likely take the rest of the year for even Holter’s most established fans to unpack and digest everything here.