Julia Holter had me from the first track of her new album, Have You in My Wilderness. “Can I feel you?” she sings, “Are you mythological?” (Full disclosure, I’m studying poetry in graduate school right now and I <3 semiotics.)
If there’s any way to my heart, it’s through a piece of art that pays painstaking attention to detail. Though Have You in My Wilderness, which comes out September 25, remains very much avant-pop (read this brief interview for example), Holter decided to put lyrics at the sonic forefront of the album. This departure from her older work and was a creative risk for her. Holter studied composition at CalArts and teamed up with producer Cole M. Greif-Neill for this album (he has also worked with Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Snoop Dogg)—together their inventive skills shine. One doesn’t just causally start an album of with a song like “Feel You,” wherein a jaunty harpsichord beat turns into electronic swirls of snappy percussion and swelling strings. With great risk comes great reward, listening to the album you can tell that Holter’s hard work has paid off.
Holter has a reputation as an intellectual musician. Her debut full-length album Tragedy is based on Euripides’ play Hippolytus and her music frequently waxes poetic, making references to Frank O’Hara, Virginia Woolf, and French writer Colette (the album Loud City Summer is a loose interpretation of the film and literary versions of Gigi). Everything is carefully curated; pop tropes and hooks frequently appear familiar until they twist and distort into a sonic tapestry. Vocals mesh with fuzzed-out echoes and drones. Have You in my Wilderness is an especially gorgeous album in which form and content work in tandem, with vocals at the forefront. But while her music is heady, it’s also engaging, charming, deliberately off-kilter, and pleasantly cinematic.
Meanwhile, her lyrics and composition remain as smart as ever, delving into questions of freedom and limitation, joy and fear. “Lucette Stranded on the Shore” draws from Colette once again, this time a side character, Lucette, from the story “Chance Acquaintances.” Lucette is robbed by her lover while at sea, left on an island to die due to the wound he inflicted upon her. The song is an account from Lucette’s point of view, waking up on the shore in a half-conscious state, remembering the violence done to her amongst a chorus of hazy strings and percussion. The soundscape devolves and fades, the audience having glimpsed Lucette’s pain and tragedy in a visceral way.
I really love how Holter can nod toward the familiar, using her songs as clouded distortions of mainstream pop with moments of almost confessional lyric clarity. On “Sea Calls Home” Holter really captures the sensation of awe, fear and disarray one can feel when experiencing freedom. Holter’s voice is so steady as she’s called to freedom, “I don’t need no one to follow, feathers full. Get up early just to charm unawakened souls when the sea called me home.” Then the tone of the song changes—she has a horrible realization, “I can’t swim. It’s lucidity. So clear!” Holter’s voice is absolutely buoyant, her tone bright-eyed, and there’s a tangible sense of both fear and joy as the track breaks down into an unsettling saxophone solo. She ends on the final quiet words: “I hear small words from the shore, no recognized pattern.”
Another standout track, “Silhouette” has crackling percussion and a jazzy lilt that melts into an increasingly distorted atmosphere with Holter meditating on language, love, and uncertainty. This track is poetry, “He can hear me sing. Though he is far, I’ll never lose sight of him… He turned to me then looked away a silhouette, a silhouette returns to me.” The song folds in on itself, repeating and looping lyrics until they are indistinguishable.
The album closes on a beautiful, bittersweet note. On the final track, Holter laments “Why do I feel you running away?” As piano keys twinkle and strings fade, we float off into the ether—just as Holter intended.