Where do I start with this thing?
Julia Holter, already one of the most interesting acts in popular music, has reached her new apex. Her fifth studio album, “Aviary,” is her first since 2015’s “Have You in My Wilderness” and she has proved the three-year gap a worthwhile wait.
Never one to settle, Holter’s career has seen her traverse the realms of ambient electronic, avant-garde pop, baroque pop, chamber pop and dream pop — re-inventing herself with every release. Not once has she whiffed. “Aviary,” which is her boldest artistic statement to date, not only continues this trend but also thrusts her career into all-star status.
The skinny: with 15 tracks, this album runs just shy of an hour-and-a-half long. This is a dense record, and one that I will likely still be processing for the foreseeable future. Why is that?
Absent are the airtight, traditionally-structured vignettes of 60s-tinged baroque pop from her previous record. In their place are monolithic slabs of experimental pop, brimming with frenetic juxtapositions of organ, bagpipe, piano, strings, percussion and whatever else Holter feels compelled to include. Yet the aggregation of disparate instruments and sounds seldom registers as obnoxious or haphazard — more often, the whole truly is more beautiful than the sum of its parts.
Look no further than the record’s opener, “Turn the Light on.” Here, Holter presents a cacophonous fury of strings, clattered cymbals, machine-gun drums and disjointed horn blares that sounds like an orchestra, where every member is paid by the decibel. They crescendo and crescendo into blissful chaos before hanging, briefly until the song ends.
On top of the instrumental, Holter’s marvelous and crystal-clear voice wistfully drawls about the prospect of reuniting with a loved one. She really wails with conviction, pushing into her highest registers. Textbook handling of an album opener, and the album is off to a transcendent start.
As for song structure, Holter has torn her approach wide-open. Like poetry, her lyrics read in linear fashion without hooks or refrains. The imagery inherent in her writing, however cryptic, evokes tangible emotion. On “Underneath the Moon,” the eighth track, she sings “This is my first time in primeval light/ Testing my moves out in the big room/ Words pour out/ My holy body free.” What an effect.
Then there’s “Whether,” which sees Holter create one of the album’s many spectacular vocal passages. Her slam-poet cadence chugs along with the four-on-the-floor drum beat as she nurtures this pretty staccato with a kind emphasis on every syllable. At the same time, her performance feels so alien, as it is overdubbed with additional vocals, doused occasionally in reverb and wanders ever-so-delicately off of whatever kind of a melody is present. How she straddles the human and the inhuman simultaneously is beyond me.
Track number three, “Chiatius,” lies deeper inside the avant-garde rabbit hole than any other song here. Truth be told, I’m kind of at a loss as to where to start discussing this portion of “Aviary,” as the eight-minute-long suite is the most head-scratching, beautiful song I’ve heard in a while.
It intertwines musical components that provide some structure to the minimalist, skeletal drone that occurs for the track’s first few minutes, including vocal drones, violas, flutes, synths and — well, I could spend an eternity trying to pick out every instrument that appears here. This builds to an a capella passage of robotic sounds that seem extra-lingual, before releasing into a free-jazz assemblage of upright bass and synth and piano, and the track closes in Tchaikovskian fashion. Phew. I’m out of breath.
And that’s this album, suffice to say. What Holter has created here is titanic. I wish I could talk at greater length about some of the other songs. This includes “Why Sad Song,” which is the most emotionally moving song of the bunch, “I Would Rather See,” where indelibly haunting organ chords shock me to the core, and “I Shall Love 1,” a coronation anthem for the purest of human joy.
“Aviary” feels overwhelming at times, and rightfully so. Its extensive runtime even still bursts at the seams with material. At times, listening to the record becomes a chore out of sheer demand for attention without any payoff or climax. With a songwriting strategy that emphasizes buildup so intensely, this is often frustrating.
That aside, “Aviary” represents an artist pursuing liberty with every right to do so. Holter invites us to take every step in the creative process with her. I recommend that you lace up your shoes and to take that step with her.
This is not an album that you want to miss.
What’s good now?: “Honey” by Ravyn (2018), “Broken Politics” by Neneh Cherry (2018)
Meh: “Here If You Listen” by David Crosby (2018)
Avoid: “Nuthin’ 2 Prove”, Lil Yachty (2018)
William Newbegin, ’21, is an assistant sports editor and columnist for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]