Album Review: Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
Have You in My Wilderness (Domino)
In her relatively short but mightily impressive career thus far, Julia Holter has developed a considerable knack for drawing her art from the most bizarre resources. She has already re-appropriated texts as disparate as Greek mythology, cookery books, 1950s Colette novels, mid-20th Century poetry and foreign language warbling, carving and sanding them down to fit her ethereal brand of dreamy baroque pop. Her sculptures have ranged from the wonderful (2013’s Loud City Song) to the weird (the phonetic translations featured on 2009’s Maria), but her star has been slowly rising in critics’ circles since the first of her “traditional” album releases landed four years ago. Mysterious and possessing the twin gifts of measured curiosity and conviction, Holter is a music magpie’s dream subject, but one doesn’t need to explicitly understand her lyrics or references to appreciate her creations. Hers is music that inspires and rewards curiosity in equal measure, and Have You in My Wilderness is her most appealing confection to date.
On this outing, Holter seems closer in kin to performance artist, rather than a straightforward songwriter. The nimble way Have You in My Wilderness flits from tale to cryptic tale paints Holter as something of an episodic playwright: in the lights-out gaps between songs, she transforms the scenery afresh, rearranging sets and hanging new backdrops for each scene. The wonderful ‘Silhouette’ opens on a bright, mid-morning cityscape, its protagonist attempting to track her titular object of affection through an increasingly bustling atmosphere, with a roomful of strings closing in to mirror the giddiness Holter’s lyrics conclude on. Moments later, she adopts a husky, languorous tone to suit the doomy, Wagnerian strings of ‘How Long?’, acting as Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, replete with references to fortune tellers and tobacco-stained fingers. Over a few short lines, Holter is capable of breathing life into her characters and fabrications, casting an effective spell through the deployment of well-written riddles and tastefully luscious arrangements.
The songs she emerges with are insistent as opposed to outright catchy, their inventive attributes enticing listeners back into the wilderness while never surrendering their secrets. The instrumentation sounds heaven-sent, but there’s frequently an unease nibbling at the core of Holter’s music; a contrast which she exploits with lyrics of fragmentary beauty. “It’s impossible to see who I’m waiting for in my raincoat,” she mourns amid the bright swoons of ‘Feel You’, her narrative deliberately ducking and stalling rather than following any sense of linearity. Later in the album, she demonstrates a jauntiness on the twinkling ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ and ‘Everytime Boots’, with her more welcoming hooks undercut by allusions to drowning, mental exhaustion, and repeating the same circuit twenty times on a motorcycle.
All the while, Holter pushes her music to new heights, her baroque nous given space to unravel on the edgy, quietly cacophonous ‘Vasquez’, complete with a tingling, hallucinatory blues sojourn. The slow-burning ‘Night Song’ and the hazy beauty of the title track both convey deep emotional gravitas while barely giving the listener time to latch onto a definitive melody. The crowning achievement is ‘Lucette Stranded on the Island’, which shifts in sluggish slow-motion, replicating the in-out eddies of waves lapping at the island on which the song’s heroine is left abandoned. The details that filter through arrive as if Holter is resurfacing from the depths of concussion, her vocal hushed and foggy: “she’s been marooned / Can anybody help her?” It’s heady, spellbinding, while also airy and feather-light. Holter isn’t given to bouts of melodrama or showiness, but the careful theatricality of ‘Lucette…’ and its peers sets her apart.
Holter’s music has been much-garlanded in the press since 2011’s Tragedy, and in the wake of her illustrious, relatively avant-garde history, it’s easy to automatically characterise her as a Serious Artist. However, the truth that might elude inattentive listeners is that Have You in My Wilderness makes for a strikingly fun experience. Holter’s ambition and theatricality both clouds and contributes to the playfulness of the end result. She ushers the listener along, teasing them to dig out the truths and treasures in these atmospheres, leaving tantalisingly brief snippets of aural bliss, lyrical revelations only half-formed, and seldom staying rooted in the same spot for more than a few moments. Ultimately, finding any concrete conclusions is a fool’s errand: Holter is constantly skipping just out of reach, eluding capture and revelling in the blurry ambiguities that dominate these ten songs. Listeners are left adrift in strange, ornate surroundings, plagued with more questions than answers. But what a landscape to get lost in.
“Language is such a play.”
Posted on October 15, 2015, in The Music World and tagged Album Review, Betsy on the Roof, Domino Records, Feel You, Have You in My Wilderness, Julia Holter, Loud City Song, Lucette Stranded on the Island, Sea Calls Me Home, Silhouette, Vasquez. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.