Rock the North

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Julia Holter delivers a massive double album, ‘Aviary’


It feels like it’s been longer since the last Julia Holter album than just three years.

And I know that sounds a bit strange, given that I don’t really talk about her much – I discovered her discography late in 2015 before giving her album Have You In My Wilderness a slot on my year-end list, but I’ll freely admit that outside of a few choice cuts it’s not an album I revisit often… mostly because it’s an odd album for me to take in. It’s beautifully effervescent, but also layered and complicated and impressively nuanced, which makes for the sort of listening experience that’s both light and heavy simultaneously, which actually makes her 2013 album Loud City Song an easier listen just for emotional continuity and a slightly more approachable style. I’ve typically said that Julia Holter’s music is Lana Del Rey done right, but upon more thought I’m not sure that’s the most apt comparison – more like Lana Del Rey with more intricacy and density, and I’ll admit that’s not for everyone.

And if I wanted proof of that, I just had to look at Julia Holter’s newest project, a daunting fifteen-song, hour-and-a-half double album that she’s described as her most layered and expansive to date, reported inspired by the chaotic screaming reality of the past few years, especially 2018. Which seemed like an interesting choice for Julia Holter – I’ve never quite considered her music contemporary, and by that I mean connected to current events and ideas, she seemed comfortable with abstraction and loftier themes. But hey, at the very least I had to respect the ambition, so what did we get from Aviary?

Okay, to describe my impression of this album, I’m going to reference something that I’m fairly certain a fair chunk of you haven’t experience, but it was an impression I couldn’t quite shake the more listens I gave Aviary. Imagine, if you will, you’re going to a high-end performance art exhibit, where the artist put out all the stops to put forward a very important message, and when you’re finished with the exhibit, you can indeed conclude that was a potent message and that all the stops were indeed pulled out. But you also get the impression that the entire event was overlong, under-arranged, and likely wildly over-budget, especially when you realize it’s a message that didn’t nearly require all the pomp and circumstance. That was my impression with Aviary, a fascinating listen that definitely hits some interesting points… but they’re all points I’ve heard in more direct fashion and media, and any attempt of profundity is completely handicapped by the execution. I’m tempted to call this an experiment that’s failed outright… except for the knowledge that on a thematic level, this double album does mostly pull off what it’s trying to do – just in a way that means I’m in no hurry to revisit it and will likely alienate a lot of audiences coming over from Have You In My Wilderness.

So, context for all of this, and we have to start with theme to have any of this make sense. Holter has described this project on a thematic level exploring the increasingly dense, claustrophobic, and contradictory nature of modern life, with the compositions partially driven off of improvisation – and you can tell. And I have to give her props for building her thematic core as an implicit defense against criticism of the project, as the question of how we grow comfortable with these contradictions in life by embracing ambiguity and subtlety also acts as a challenge to critics to grow accustomed to the clashing, dissonant elements on this project and accept its ambiguity. So there’s a point to be made about experimentation and desensitization, which enables one to accept nuance in an increasingly chaotic world… and yet there are two major issues with this point. The first can be demonstrated with a cut early on, ‘Everyday Is An Emergency’, which spends half the song with wailing instrumentation simulating klaxons and sirens before the scant lyrics highlight the primitive animal instinct that comes forth from the ‘chaitius’, an old word for a miserable wretch. But wait, doesn’t this directly contradict the main theme of the album in finding ascendancy and comfort in ambiguity when instead there is regression to the baser self, but that’s the conscious, rational response – the irrational response is how this reminds me of The Knife’s ‘Fracking Fluid Injection’, where the production brings forward really obvious symbolism and tries to paint it as more profound than it really is. And while I’m not going to bring out my three P’s for political art – power, precision, and populism – because I’m not sure this album has an explicitly conscious aim, I will say it’s hard to avoid a sense that in execution the album wants to avoid really dealing in any ambiguity grounded in reality. And it starts early, taking the shimmering, gauzy iconography across ‘Whether’ and ‘Chaitius’ that show whenever a hard position is asked, there’s a devolution into muddied deflection, and amidst the increased chatter on ‘Voce Simul’, it begins to look outright nihilistic. This isn’t finding comfort in ambiguity so much as recoiling into numbness and a lesser, more craven state amidst the chaos where on songs like ‘I Would Rather See’ and ‘Colligere’ humanity wishes to see the heavenly presence reduced and brought to their level, only redeemed for a higher state of mind by the choice to show empathy on ‘Words I Heard’ and ‘I Shall Love 1’.

Or, to translate this, Julia Holter isn’t elevating empathy and love so much as the messy humanity that proves increasingly incapable of it unless they’re at the lowest point and have nowhere to turn – and hey, if you want evidence of feral, pack-minded viciousness devoid of empathy and unwilling to engage in a greater state of nuance, I can point you to the average Twitter thread or YouTube comments section – that’s not really that profound. And that’s not even getting into the presumed elevation of ambiguity and nuance that’s demanded to take in the execution of this message… mostly because it seems to operate at cross-purposes to the message itself. Think about it: the philosophical arc of the album shows humanity in some form devolving to its most base and craven level, and yet to comprehend that arc Julia Holter demands the much smaller audience that absolutely fancies itself more ‘cultured’ and ‘high-minded’ show a comfort for subtlety and ambiguity in the execution of the album that the subjects of the album’s arc would actively avoid until there’s no other choice. And I’ll say it: not only is this message about the furthest thing from populist, it feels really pompous and self-serving, both helped and hindered by Holter inserting herself as the primary figure in this story… which feels like an awkward point of reference that her classically-trained delivery really doesn’t support. And that makes the regression in the face of empathy or nuance feel short-sighted – ironically, lacking in the sort of nuance that doesn’t try to offer an explanation why people recoil from complicated truths or an ask to share and love others, but instead presents it like a universal truth of humanity that doesn’t go deeper. And if this is her high-minded case describing the shrieking modern hell of tribalism… well, for as much as it tries to present a case for empathy, it ironically shows little empathy itself.

Hell, if anything it feels like the plea for ambiguity is more of a deflection from the fact that when you get into the execution of Aviary, for the most part we’re dealing with a mess. Initially I was preparing to offer a defense of the double album length that it’s designed to simulate the exhaustion of that cacophonous environment, but that’s really only the case for the first disc of this album – the second is more composed and a bit more structured, but not enough to avoid the suspicion that this could have easily been trimmed down with any focus on internal logic. Hell, that probably would have helped the improvisation in composition as well, because we’re not really dealing with songs with hooks or structured verses so much as freeform poetry that barely holds to whatever foundations are here. And like Kurt Vile’s Bottle It In, it’s an open toss-up whether there’ll be live drums or programmed percussion, or whether the synths with integrate well with the strings or horns or even bagpipes, and all of it’s operating on the assumption the pickups are mixed in a way that doesn’t clip the edge of the mix – and when you have such clean multi-tracked vocals that gain their power based on delicacy, that’s a real problem. And yes, of course, some of this is explicitly intended to draw clash with progressions to create dissonance, but if I’m making a comparison to, say, the work of Anna Meredith or even Bjork’s Utopia – of which the opening track here strikes a sharp resemblance – there’s at least a semblance of structure or consistent melodic progression, or at the very least a groove to drive some sort of momentum. Whereas with Aviary… look, I won’t deny there are isolated songs that can build well – Julia Holter is still a unique composer and while it’s never consistent, there are some gorgeous moments. The most obvious is ‘I Shall Love 2’, primed as a single as much as anything could be on this album, and for good reason, the heavenly swell with the strings and fizzy tap of the beat playing off the bass and slightly wonky melody works. Hell, it’s no surprise they opted for a reprise of it much later with ‘I Shall Love 1’, or that they took a similar fizzy tap of percussion for ‘Les Jeux To You’, which probably has one of the more stable grooves on this project – even though I like ‘Whether’ thanks to the horns, I’m not as much of a fan of the blocky snare against the beeping synth, a similar off-kilter vibe that manages to translate on ‘Underneath The Moon’. And look, as much as the content frustrated me on ‘Words I Heard’, the strings arrangement is genuinely beautiful, and when you have the lo-fi keyboards and fragmented touches behind ‘Why Sad Song’ and ‘In Garden’s Muteness’, there are some achingly potent melodies here, and I really liked the dramatic build behind ‘I Would Rather See’.

And that’s the real frustrating thing about Aviary, because I’d struggle to say this is outright bad – the second disc is a lot easier to digest than the first, but still! I respect Julia Holter’s ambition from her thematic reaches to her compositions and production, this is an album designed to be challenging and on some level it delivers a coherent message with some striking poetry. On the other hand, if there was a project screaming for an editor, it is absolutely this one: it runs a lot longer than it should, the clash of tones and lack of structure brings really inconsistent returns, and maybe a more populist and consistent approach to the themes would connect more strongly. And what genuinely saddens me is that most won’t bother to dig deeper and draw the line through the tangled subconscious, and will absolutely get the reviews of ‘well, I won’t say I get it but I absolutely have to love it’. And while the mountains of ambiguity will forever prevent a clear picture of this album, I’ve parsed out enough to solidify my opinion: strong 6/10, diehard fans only, and if you’re expecting any pop concessions this is emphatically not for you. Otherwise… if you’ve got an hour and a half to sink into some challenging baroque, neo-classical improvisation, this might be for you, but for pretty much nobody else – and at the end of the day, that might wind up being the real problem.

Review by Mark Grondin
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