Wednesday, December 2, 2015

album review: 'have you in my wilderness' by julia holter

It's so easy to forget that not everyone listens to everything, especially when you're not on the Internet. It's a bizarre thing, especially when you live in a city like Toronto and you hang around a circle that likes to stay up to date on trends - and it's all the more pronounced online where anything and anyone can build a following. But when I was leaving a meeting at my full-time job a few months or so ago and said I was going to listen to some Kurt Vile and I got blank expressions. This guy has been a fixture in indie rock for the past decade in multiple groups, and nobody in that room knew who he was. It really throws into stark relief that so many will only listen to the radio or a few personal favourites, and that while I could brush it off by saying, 'Well, I listen to weird stuff', I bet if I played some of the music off that album, it'd be easy enough to like - it's not that inaccessible. A bit off the beaten path, but if the money or push was put behind it, I could see it gaining a little traction on the right stations.

So fast-forward to me listening to Tragedy, the debut album from Julia Holter reportedly inspired by the Euripedes play Hippolytus, an atmospheric project that utilized overlapping soundscapes with absolutely no regard to conventional song-structure or hooks - in other words, far less accessible and the antithesis to radio, the sort of music that's just as difficult to describe as it can be to enjoy, especially if you're coming from the mainstream. And yet there was something oddly beautiful about the record in its brilliant control of atmosphere and mood that I really appreciated.

And yet since tragedy, every subsequent album from Julia Holter has been stepping towards more conventional definitions of songwriting, first with the gorgeous and pretty damn excellent Ekstasis and then a year later with the even better, more intimate Loud City Song, a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood musical from 1958 Gigi. And the more I delved into the gleaming, elegant melodies and impressively textured production and impressionistic but surprisingly potent writing, I realized something that I'm sure will piss some of you off: this would be what Lana Del Rey would sound like if she was good at her job, if she avoided wallowing in her own melodrama and simply worked on polishing her vintage sound into something that brought the past to life now instead of simply revisiting it. Granted, she probably wouldn't have the same pop appeal, but with every album, Julia Holter was proving she could probably do just as well in that world.

And two years later, she's coming back with Have You In My Wilderness, her longest gap between albums and another release that's won her huge critical acclaim - is it deserved?

Honestly... this is a gorgeously composed, beautifully performed, artfully written and considered record that's thematically consistent if not entirely cohesive... and yet the more I listened through it, the more I struggled to find any real emotional connection to it. And up until my last few of the fifteen-plus listens I gave this record, that would have been the end of it... and then it finally clicked. I won't say I like this record more than Loud City Song - the impressively well-told story and perfectly executed old-fashioned drama really did connect for me - but once you untangle the subtleties of Have You In My Wilderness, you'll realize it's a very worthy successor.

So why did this album take so long to click? Well, part of it is Julia Holter herself - make no mistake, she's a gorgeous singer, and with even more of the reverb cleared away this album only accentuates more of the emotive subtleties in her tone. But for as much as this album tries to cultivate that sense of intimacy, there are tracks where it feels like she's still wrapped in her cocoon of backing vocals and mist and is untouchable - which worked to a point on Loud City Song, but only because that record saw fit to put the cracks in that image in tight focus. Here with the closer focus some tracks can come across a little distant - which is a problem when so much of the mix is laid bare, with my biggest issue coming on 'Vasquez', where she plays the role of a Mexican bandit during the gold rush who is hunted down by the men of the women he's seduced - you'd think this song would gun more for soaring western melodrama and instead it's played perhaps a bit more tastefully than it should be. Or take 'Lucette Stranded On The Island' - I get the appeal of the story of the woman seduced and then robbed and left to die on an island and I get the dizzy, whirling feel of the writing and delivery that reminds me a bit of heatstroke, but for some reason it never really sticks for me. On the other hand, when Julia Holter is on point, like the intimate ballads of 'How Long?' and 'Night Song', or the exuberant freedom of 'Sea Calls Me Home' or the slightly unstable obsession of 'Silhouette' or the frustration of 'Everytime Boots' or desperation of 'Betsy On The Roof', she goddamn nails it, her careful poise slipping with hairline fragments where real raw emotion is just beneath the surface.

Of course, it helps that the instrumentation is doing a lot of heavy lifting here - and the fascinating thing is how on first listen how simple much of it comes across: brittle keys, wiry basslines, choppy strums, and the cushion of strings to drive it home. And with so much of the reverb and grandeur stripped back, initial listens left me missing the fantastically rich atmosphere of Loud City Song - until you start noticing the subtleties. The manic sawing of the strings on 'Silhouette', the brittle groove of 'Sea Calls Me Home' that breaks into a whistle and sax solo that's almost cute until you pick up the mingled fear and hope beneath it, the borderline rockabilly vibe of 'Everytime Boots' that reminds me a bit of Lindi Ortega without a firm handle on the grit - which completely works for the subject matter - or the beautiful ethereal swell of the title track that completely nails the tragedy of thinking you have happy ever after in hand even as it slips away. And make no mistake, the more melancholic and sad moments on this record are absolutely killer - the final piano notes on 'Betsy On The Roof', the mournful strings on 'How Long?', the aching sadness of 'Night Song', they really click. There are only a few points where I feel the production is a tad overmixed - like the perfunctory handclaps on 'Feel You' - or the songs run a bit long in their unstable breakdown, like 'Betsy On The Roof' and 'Lucetta Stranded On The Island'. And then there's 'Vasquez', which while I get what they were doing with the sax and the slightly chintzy tone over the chorus, really doesn't have the grit to properly click with the subject matter, at least for me.

But now we need to get into the meat of things: lyrics and themes. And here's the first point: unlike Loud City Song, this is not just one story, but a collection of loosely linked short vignettes focusing on the titular line: the desire to bring one's lover into their world, to experience things as they do and enhance that deeper connection. And tracks like 'Feel You' and 'Silhouette' immediately establish how thrilling it might feel... but by the second track you already know that something is awry as it is a love song from two obsessed sisters to the same guy, who is seeing them both - and you get the feeling they both know it and yet are fixated on making him theirs alone. And when you get tracks like 'Lucette Stranded On The Island' or the rush of freedom on 'Sea Calls Me Home', you'd think that this album is speaking against getting led astray by that sort of passion... but of course Julia Holter is more complicated than that. 'Night Song' shows her constantly running away from her hookup who she barely knows, and yet she's always drawn back to try and learn more, find the 'second face' he hides from the rest of the world. 'Everytime Boots' shows her firmly in her partner's life where things are going well, and yet whenever she tries to guide the relationship's path, things either spiral in circles or she's blocked at every turn. The theme seems to be contradictory: give of yourself to enter another's wilderness or draw him into your own, expect disaster... and yet as 'How Long?' describes a tragic singer constantly seeking either fame or the love of a rich man and not even doing well, her response is simple: 'All the people run from the horizon' - that twilight, that winter that will eventually end things.

But it wasn't until the final two tracks where things snapped most into focus: after 'Vasquez' showing him becoming the fantasies of love for women and heroism for men, the title track shows the narrator seems to regard the girl as an answer to his dream come true, everything he ever wanted, and he wants to bring her into his wilderness... and it's the possessiveness of the song that crystallizes the tragedy of the theme. We all have that craving for connection, but it can't be an idealized connection, one giving or taking without the other in turn. It's human and thrilling to want that love, but it needs to go both ways: you can't just pull them into your wilderness, but merge them into a world that can fit you both. In other words, this is an album that doesn't reject love but simply asserts it must be mutual to last, and while it's a simple theme, the articulation of the details and gorgeous execution makes that simplicity mean so much more.

So in summary - and forgive me for this - I think I've nailed down why so much of Lana Del Rey's material falls flat for me and Julia Holter's works, at least on a thematic and literary level. For Lana, her worst material revels in the one-sided connection, pulling the melodrama out of self-love or deferring to men who would exploit it - there's never a reciprocal connection. Julia Holter, on the surface has her characters engage in similar situations on this record, but the framing highlights the tragedy of such choices and craves that reciprocal connection, with the drive for that connection to give love and receive it in return. It doesn't need to engage in broad stylization when the stories can drive the drama - understated yet volumes more effective. In short, this record is goddamn great, and an easy 8/10 from me. A few flaws, sure, but not many, and definitely worth your time to check out. It might have taken me a long time to hear it and just as long to 'get it - but man, it was worth it.

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