Julia Holter – Aviary

by Bob Waters

"The fifth studio album from American art pop extraordinaire defies genre classification to create something truly unique. The wildly experimental Aviary is a masterful work, bursting with ideas and an uncontainable lust for life."

When Julia Holter released Have You In My Wilderness in 2015, she received almost universal praise for her intricate songwriting, emotional candidness, and for the record’s tangible warmness and positivity. She had created something both immediate and accessible without compromising her artistic vision. It was the next step in refining Holter’s pop sensibilities, a progression measured throughout her discography thus far. It would follow that her next project would continue down this same path. Aviary is not this album. Decidedly so. Here her sights have been set much, much higher.

To better understand its context, it’s worth a revisit to her first studio album, Tragedy. A markedly different beast from HYIMW, Tragedy draws from sound collage, drone and ambient music to create an endlessly abstract homage to Greek mythology. It is a dreamlike journey full of half whispers and lo-fi hums, though seeds of what’s to come later in her career are sprinkled throughout. Seven years later, thanks to her growing success Holter has the resources and the platform to widen her scope. A larger budget means more varied instrumentation and better production than her earliest work. Her reputation gives her the creative freedom to be more ambitious and eccentric with her songwriting than ever before. Aviary finds Julia painting with a pallet of infinite colours. She has created a living, breathing world of an album. Each track sprouts and grows organically across its runtime, allowed the full space to expand and explore their potential unrestrained.

The stall is well and truly set out from the opener. The aptly titled Turn The Light On is an eruption of wonderful noise, twisting and swelling as Holter’s voice soars over the top, reaching levels we’ve never heard from her before. It’s an orchestra tune up turned up to eleven, carried forward by thumping drum fills and shimmering strings. The triumphant power it possesses recalls more from the spiritual jazz of artists like Pharoah Sanders than any pop contemporaries. Following this is the albums shortest track, Whether, which interrupts any chance you had to catch a breath. With its staccato key stabs and prominent beat, it is the closest thing you’ll find to an upbeat pop song here. However, Holter’s vocal idiosyncrasies and the strange background ambience prevent it entering such territory.

Voce Simul contrasts the maximalism of the album’s openers with its deep minimal synth line that undercuts the majority of the track. This in tandem with the reverb cloaked vocals and distant saxophone feels like exploring some great alien cave system, with sounds fluttering in and out of the darkness. The first major curveball of the album is thrown by Everyday Is An Emergency; the opening four-minute barrage of screeching woodwind and bagpipe sounds is overwhelming in its dissonance. It seems hard to believe it came from the same mind that wrote songs as bright and comforting as Feel You or Sea Calls Me Home. When the chaos relents Julia’s voice feels like a heavenly release, but the track’s darkness does not dissipate. Solemn piano chords and a haunting overdubbed backing choir build to a further climax, this time icy cold. Holter has said of the album’s title to “imagine one’s thoughts, the beautiful, the horrifying ones flying around together like birds”, with this piece being a brutal realisation of a nightmarish psyche.

The lead single, I Shall Love 2, is the albums centrepiece. Holter’s voice is mixed right to the front as she talk-sings directly to the listener, backed by an ethereal instrumental much more reminiscent of her previous work. The overdubbed choir is used once more as it builds, eventually drowning out the softly sung lead as the track is overcome by its own joyous momentum. Lyrically it is lucid and straightforward compared to her largely cryptic storytelling up to this point. She sings of the concept of love in a unique and meta context – “In all the human errors there is something true, / But do the angels say, do the angels say, / ‘I shall love’?”

As the final line is repeated and repeated it becomes a defiant answer and declaration of self (‘Who cares what people say? Who cares what people say?’), an anthem against moral or emotional scepticism, for the proudly sentimental. From this point onwards we switch into overdrive, the album’s back half is where it truly comes into its own. Underneath The Moon is a masterfully evolving song – its stilted beginning sounds almost new wave, like a lost outtake from the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. When a four to the floor beat kicks in for the final two minutes we are transported to our very own midnight forest disco. The accompanying organ licks are downright funky (even a cowbell makes a star cameo), and the groove is as danceable as it is unexpected.

In terms of musical expression, all bases are covered from here on out. In Gardens’ Muteness offers up a gorgeous reserved ballad with just Julia and her piano, a rarity among the albums otherwise dense instrumentation. The manic middle section of Les Jeux To You explodes out of its calmer envelope, like a plant sprouting up through cracked concrete. Drums and Holter’s playful vocals push and pull each other, wrestling up to a sudden culmination and transition to the effortlessly flowing, synth heavy outro. Words I Heard is simply inexplicable. Like In Garden’s Muteness again we have Julia at the piano, but she is elevated by some flawless string arrangements. The result is transcendent and timeless, an immensely affecting piece of melancholia. The pretty backing music distracts from the darkness within the lyrics, as she ponders the bleakness and futility of humanity’s societal improvement (‘Fools crusade in hostile fog, Fish are martyrs to the kingdom war-dogs’). The repeating plea of ‘Save, save our souls’ echoes out answerless. One of her oldest songs, Why Sad Song, rerecorded for Aviary, somberly closes the album in a suitably dreamy manner. It’s the antithesis of the opening track, and with its slow, wistful atmosphere it could well be renamed Turn the Light Off.

By its own experimental nature, Aviary has its imperfections. To create something so new and fresh requires taking risks, and inevitably sometimes these new ideas won’t hit their intended heights. Tracks like Chaitius and Another Dream are full of moments of brilliance but can seem somewhat meandering at times. And sure, the 90-minute runtime is a lot to absorb in one sitting. However, the vast overshadowing of these imperfections by the enumerable successes ensures that they become negligible.

The biggest challenge for any artist is to translate the vision from their mind and create some kind of resemblance in their work. For Holter on Aviary this process seems as if it was trivial. Perhaps its single strongest attribute is how uncompromising, and how personal it is. What we are left with is unfiltered self-expression, a window into the mind of an artist in full, flowing form. It is music purely for music’s sake, completely free of any phantom corporate guiding hand, free of any cynicism whatsoever. For a casual fan eager for another Have You In My Wilderness, they may have bitten off more than they could chew. Gone are the catchy choruses and immediate melodies. Aviary opens the door for you to explore but it won’t hold your hand along the way. It’s up to you to give it the time it so, so deserves.

Picks:

Turn The Light On, I Shall Love 2, Underneath The Moon, Les Jeux To You, Words I Heard

Rating: 5/5