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Album Review: Aviary – Julia Holter



To try and truly understand all the goings-on in the world in 2018 seems an impossible task. It’s an understatement to suggest that our country (and world at large even) has been backsliding into chaos for the past two years. I often find it difficult to process every ping of new, bleak information hitting my phone. The bleary-eyed feeling of waking up in the morning and pointing my face at a screen has seemed to extend to nearly all hours of the day. In short, existence is exhausting. But we all try and sift through the madness to uncover the goodness that still exists. It’s a daunting task, often, but one we feel compelled to complete. Because behind all of the extreme awfulness, there is beauty to be found. Or at least, that is the mission statement Julia Holter’s newest album Aviary seeks to explore. Her most monumental album yet at 90 minutes and 15 uniquely compelling tracks, Holter attempts to capture the above description in sonic detail. And it’s even more chaotic, difficult, somber, and ultimately thrilling than you might expect.

In interviews surrounding the release of Aviary, Julia Holter has suggested that all of her music is both inherently political and ultimately personal. But you may not even begin to understand that with one or two cursory listens to her newest project. Because despite the fact that Aviary is the sound of the modern experience, it still keeps its intentions/allusions/politics at arm’s length. It’s only when you take into account her pre-release statements that the experience of Aviary makes so much more sense. She aptly described the album as the “cacophony of the mind in a melting world,” which remains the absolute best way to describe the sound and mood of the album. It’s a unique, often perplexing experience, with Holter throwing herself into as much chaos and beauty she can arrange. Ultimately, the album is an experience all unto itself, even more so than any of her previous albums. 

And that all may come as a surprise to those that came into Julia Holter’s music with her last album, 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness. Many believed this was when she started to settle down into a more friendly sound. For that LP was Holter translating her experimental past into something much more accessible. Instead of following it up in a traditional way, Holter has opted to flip all convention over and craft an album that is purposefully more challenging and bizarre. The reasoning is primarily because Holter wanted to feel less restricted to typical song structures, and to throw herself into something much more playful. Aviary is a dark listen at various points, but it still sounds like the result of a musician and arranger at the very top of her game. It’s clear all throughout that Holter is having fun getting utterly lost in confusing and emotional sounds of horns, strings, synths, piano, bagpipes, bass, and her own voice.

That feeling of getting lost is immediately evident just two seconds into the opening track “Leave The Light On,” which is essentially four minutes of a blossoming crescendo. It sustains momentum by refusing to move forward, instead using its sound of an orchestra collapsing in on itself as the driving force. And throughout it all, Holter’s voice is a booming, belting force, sounding like she’s ascended from the heavens to try and restore order amid the mess. It’s an absolutely gorgeous soundscape that exemplifies the precise mood Holter wants to convey with every song on Aviary. Which makes it a tone-setting overture of sorts. It’s also a point to flip the expectations of those who heard the pre-release singles and were sure they knew what this album would be. The two singles “I Shall Love 2” and “Words I Heard” are more of what many were expecting with new work from Holter. But they are outliers. The second track “Whether” also sounds like a more accessible song, but there’s still something amiss about its sound. It’s almost manic in its peppiness. And as soon as it starts to gel, it’s over. Which may sound frustrating, but its commitment to a hammer out a soundscape as fast as possible is something kind of remarkable.

Other tracks take their time crafting a mood, but are no less substantive. A majority of the tracks here easily run over 5 or 6 minutes, giving them more time to develop (or in some cases remain stationary). The longest and arguably weirdest song here is “Chaitius” which goes on for good three minutes almost purely instrumentally before quietly shifting into an almost spoken word piece where Holter seems to be meditating on the concept of joy. That then moves into the final section of the song, where the instrumentals build into a clearer focuses, as does Holter’s voice. The end result is something airy, dreamlike, and surreal. This mood carries directly over into “Voce Simul,” whose atmosphere seems more contained, and therefore more successful. It’s easily one of the biggest highlights of the album. The smooth jazziness of the opening section gives way to a huge sounding vocal piece where Holter’s voice gets layered over and over, becoming at once completely creepy and utterly exhilarating. The track calms right back down to carry it out the same way it started. As a whole, it’s one of the finest tracks that showcases Holter’s gift of arrangement as well as intention in getting lost in the sounds she creates. 

As previously explained, this “lost in sound” idea pops up time and time again on Aviary. Most jarringly, on “Everyday Is An Emergency,” a track that has already become one of the most off-putting and negatively talked about songs here. It opens with four minutes of screeching horns and bagpipes, each layer seemingly trying to match the other, but failing, which wind up sounding like an alarm system. When the screeches fall away, Holter comes in with a sparse haunting piano ballad. The lyrics recall the political mood she wants to get as she grasps to find heaven anywhere she can, while also recognizing wretchedness all around us. The song will undoubtedly go down as the most bizarre, challenging thing here, but if you think of it as more of a horror film score piece, it begins to make sense.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Holter gets lost in a strange calm with tracks like “Colligere,” “In Gardens’ Muteness,” and closer “Why Sad Song.” All of these songs are attempting the same thing as the more busy ones, but in a way that isn’t so challenging. There’s still enjoyment to be found in these sadder moments solely because of how Holter blends her voice with the sparser instruments that surround her. In fact, much of the album started with the vocal parts, which were then used to build the arrangements around. This unique way of working has given the songs an elevated sense of style, with every note from vocals to strings to piano, all bleeding into each other in complete sonic bliss.

But the most compelling moments on Aviary are the ones that see Holter really throwing herself into the madness of sound. “Underneath The Moon” is an album highlight, and also the best representation of everything Holter is trying to do throughout Aviary. Its ping-ponging instruments are a joy to get swept up in. It also has gorgeous moments of catharsis where all the sounds come together in unison to lift up Holter singing the kind-of chorus of “hysteria, hysteria, collapse and get up again…” The aforementioned “I Shall Love 2” also has this blissful moment of catharsis as it slowly climbs up to the climactic wall of sound where Holter shouts “I shall love” over and and over again. Its counterpoint song “I Shall Love 1,” which comes near the end of the record, essentially utilizes the previous song’s climax as its entire focal point. “Les Jeux To You” builds to an unexpected middle where Holter goes off singing “I see I no I yes I you I ace I hi I say I low” and so on and so on. It’s her most playfully nonsensical singing and songwriting, but it completely works because she sells it as a moment of pure euphoria. 

And if this all sounds like Aviary is a record that is all over the place, that’s because it is. But despite its wide-ranging sounds and styles, it still works as a uniformly whole work of art. This goes back to one of the starting points Julia Holter had when making this LP. She came across the line “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds” from an Etel Adnan short story and found something profound in it. So she built off of that image an album that is entirely about losing yourself to surrounding sounds. As much as people will want to paint this album as pretentious, or challenging for the sake of it, I think that’s misunderstanding Holter’s intention. For as many references she packs and languages she sings in, she’s using all of that collecting as a means to express two central points. In one, there’s the creation of sound as a means to express what it feels like living today. In the other, there’s the joy in that creation of sound. Where the two meet is in the attempt at finding harmony in dissonance, or beauty within chaos.  Frankly, Aviary is A LOT. It’s lengthy, and eccentric, and challenging, but never once do you get the sense that Holter is looking down on anyone. The “pretentious” claim people will undoubtedly lob at this album, especially if its word-of-mouth praise gets amped up by year’s end, comes from a misunderstood place. It’s the belief that simply because it’s different, or artsy it must be pretentious. And thus, if people like it, they must be pretentious too, right? While I can’t say why others like it, I can say why I do. Why i love it, in fact. 

Aviary is a curious way to follow-up such a successful album because it doesn’t quite sound like what she’s done before. Sure, it does contain her past stylistic touches of medieval-like music and baroque pop sounds, but it’s still very much beyond all of that. It’s nearly beyond genre. How you do explain all of the thrumming, disparate, beautiful, scary, quiet, bombastic sounds on Aviary? In a way, you simply can’t. It’s entirely its own thing, seeming to exist past not only convention, but time period. And that pure uniqueness is why I find myself gravitating to it so much. I haven’t heard another album that commits so wholeheartedly to experimentation and pulls it off in many years. The creative freedom and expression Julia Holter has here is something to treasure. In some ways, it’s the Julia Holter at her peak self. It’s about turning away from convention and focusing in on a simple enjoyment of sound. Since the album’s release, I have slowly become obsessed with listening to it, taking in all of its wild sonic beauty. The big textured layers of arrangements that Holter has crafted on nearly every single song is something I love to wrap myself up in like a thick, oversized blanket. The smaller details, too, keep it replaying in my head endlessly. The way it literally sounds when Holter’s otherworldly voice sings “an inner ear serenity endures” on “Whether.” The space she lets linger openly between the words “morning intoning something” and “blue” on “Les Jeux To You.” The weight she puts on the words “every stubborn bone thrown / underneath the moon and stars” on “Underneath The Moon.” The competing sounds of sadness and triumph in the strings and vocal delivery as she sings “hear the hocket babble / save, save our souls” on “Words I Heard.” Those are just four tiny examples on an album spilling over with details to latch onto.

Aviary is very much the most alive sounding record of the year. It has this churning, lifelike swirl of cascading sounds and ideas, unlike anything else released thus far in 2018. And although one or two or three glances at it may be daunting or unexplainable, there’s a certain effect it has on calmly calling you back in. She seeks to take your hand on this journey and hope you get something out of it. Its magical experience of explorative sounds, experiments, and textures is something to hold dear. We simply do not get albums like this very often. While it is a scope that is assuredly niche in some way, it’s one well worth seeking out. For the uninitiated Holter listeners, and the initiated alike, this will be a challenging listen. It was for me too, but then I started to approach it the same way Julia Holter approached making it: get lost in the sounds. There are string arrangements that sound like they are crash-landing on Earth. There are mournful horns that hit points of both noir atmosphere and heavenly desperation. There are huge-sounding synths that get built into sturdy, technicolor walls. And then there’s Julia Holter’s voice, which is as shifting, ecstatic, depressive, cathartic, and dreamlike as any other sound on the record. So much, so so so much, could (and should) be written about this magnum opus of an album. But for now, it’s time to simply listen and enjoy throwing yourself into the spiraling, breathtaking, controlled disarray of Julia Holter’s mind.

4.8 out of 5.


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