Julia Holter: Have You in My Wilderness review – exceptional pop built on avant-garde foundations

From her found-sound DJ mixes to her experimental albums based on French novels and Greek tragedies, Julia Holter seems very much the serious artist. But she has always done beautiful melodies, and never more so than here

It feels slightly odd to use the words “commercial breakthrough” in conjunction with LA’s Julia Holter. Holter has long set out a defiantly avant-garde stall, making music that gave the kind of critic who likes to talk about things like mesotics and detournement the opportunity to talk about mesotics and detournement until they passed out from exhaustion. On one early solo release she used John Cage’s Circus On – a score consisting of an instruction on how to turn a book into a performance – to make music out of a Los Angeles church-club cookbook from the 1920s. Since then, she has put out a pink vinyl 7in single of phonetic translations of songs in foreign languages; a limited-edition release on a label that specialises in “experimental acoustic ecology and improvised sound-art”; a collaboration with Michael Pisaro of experimental composer collective the Wandelweiser Group; and albums based on Euripides’ Hippolytus, the work of Virgina Woolf and Frank O’Hara, and Gigi, the Colette novel that begat the musical in which creepy old Maurice Chevalier “sanked ’eaven for leedle gulls”. There was also a DJ mix consisting entirely of found sounds and the work of experimental composers. Potential listeners to the latter were counselled “don’t be frightened” by the website that hosted it: a website, it’s perhaps worth noting, that wasn’t frightened of voting Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats as the best album of the 1970s.

When you put out the kind of music that Throbbing Gristle fans feel obliged to warn each other not to be afraid of, the concept of your most accessible album to date might seem a little relative. But Holter’s avant-garde credentials don’t tell the whole story. Improbable as it seems, she could reasonably claim that there’s always been a pop element to her experimental acoustic ecology and improvised sound art: anyone with the stamina to get through the first 12 minutes of Bars in Afternoons (2013) – which, as the title suggested, consisted of recordings with muffled chat, clinking glasses etc – was rewarded by Holter suddenly breaking into a gorgeous, spectral piano ballad, Don’t Make Me Over. On the same year’s Loud City Song – the one inspired by Gigi – field recordings rubbed shoulders with astonishing songs: the intense, deliberately over-saturated arrangements of Maxim’s I or City Appearing managed to sound simultaneously vivid and feverish.

Two years on, Have You in My Wilderness takes her pop inclinations further. It comes without the kind of overarching, literary narrative that marked her previous releases (although Colette crops up again on Lucette Stranded on the Island, based on a character from her novella Chance Acquaintances). Rather than fighting for space with layer upon layer of sound, or buried in echoey haze, her vocals are foregrounded. Her voice is as intimate as the stream-of-consciousness lyrics are puzzling: “It’s no wonder they’re shipping all my clothes / Wear the fog / I’ll forget the rules I’ve known / Look in cloud’s mirror,” she sings on Sea Calls Me Home, adding, erroneously: “It’s lucidity! So clear!” Opening track Feel You is beautiful, airy and sunlit, its melody elevated by the arrangement’s harpsichord and strings and fidgety, stop-start drum pattern (the drumming is really inventive throughout, not a phrase you’re often required to deploy when reviewing new rock albums in 2015). In a more interesting world, it would be all over the radio.

In fact, melodies on Have You in My Wilderness seem to gush from Holter in the way that challenging, limited-edition CD-Rs and cassettes on tiny experimental labels used to. They’re present even at its most opaque moments, such as the lengthy Betsy on the Roof and Vasquez, a track that initially recalls both Air and The Blue Nile, before breaking down into abstraction: drifting strings and electronics, clattering drums and skronking saxophone. When rock and pop artists go for what you might call the free jazz option, they tend to clobber the listener over the head with it, often because they’re using it as a signifier, to make a point: Honk! Screech! Behold what an extremely serious and important artist I am! Gasp at how my creativity and quest for expression cannot be contained within the perameters of rock and pop! Here, the drums and sax sound weirdly muted, as if they are somewhere in the distance. The effect is really unsettling. It’s indicative of the subtle way Holter uses her avant-garde background here. You can hear hints of her found-sound experiments in the odd rattling noise that fades in and out of Lucette Stranded on the Island, agitated and at odds with the song’s sumptuous orchestral swoon. There’s something gently unorthodox and intriguing about her approach to singing, the way her voice constantly shifts and changes: from strident and bright-eyed on the Vaudevillian Everytime Boots to heavy-lidded murmur on Vasquez, to a mournful, Nicoish low, complete with Teutonic inflections on How Long? Moreover, she can keep shifting characters and accents without making the listener feel as if they’re in the audience at a dreadful am-dram production: it never jars or feels knowingly clever, it all just seems to fit the song.

The result is a genuinely exceptional and entrancing album, opaque but effective, filled with beautiful, skewed songs, unconventional without ever feeling precious or affected. From the title downwards, you’re struck by the sense of an artist who once seemed austere and forbidding beckoning you into their world. It’s an invitation that’s hard to resist.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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