November 2018

Arts & Letters

A bigger, shinier cage: Julia Holter’s ‘Aviary’

By Luke Goodsell
A classically schooled composer seeks shelter from the cacophony of modern life

“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 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.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


Julia Holter. Photograph by Dicky Bahto

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