Album Review: Julia Holter – Aviary

It might seem easy, during the early passages of Aviary, to get lost in Julia Holter‘s more ethereal avant-garde meanderings.

julia holter - aviary artwork

While its critically acclaimed predecessor, Have You In My Wilderness, opened with the charmingly accessible, radio-friendly ‘Feel You’, Aviary announces itself with the cacophonous ‘Turn the Light On’. The tracks that follow seem a carefully measured exercise in scene-setting, warming the listener to the euphoric beauty that lies ahead while constantly wrong-footing them with spells of arrhythmic agitation.

‘Weather’ always threatens to spiral away from the listener, it’s stomping rhythm giving way to frantic organ tones. The sometimes celestial strings and horns of ‘Chaitius’ are made nervy by the disembodied voice and syntactically jarring lyrics. ‘Voce Simul’ builds through towering choral vocals towards a mountainous sense of drama.

Throughout the first half of the record there’s a sense of intangibility, of Holter offering the listener something before using impressive compositional nous to pull it away from them. It’s equally enticing and unnerving – the intonation of the word ‘joy’ on ‘Chaitius’ initially suggesting a pleasant sense of happiness before morphing into something almost threatening.

But arriving at the album’s halfway point, ‘I Shall Love 2’ sees Holter emerging from the atmosphere of uncertainty crafted in the record’s early stages into a world of defiant love. From the midst of a confused world appears a confident and bold sense of self-identity, floating above the chaos and revelling in emotional magnetism. “That is all, that is all, there is nothing else,” Holter sings, “Who cares what people say? Who cares what people say?” The overlapping vocals that form the track’s climax are terrifically rewarding after the journey Holter’s taken you on so far. And while there remains a sense of something transcendental, still beyond your grasp, there’s a vague sensation of relief as Holter begins to settle into a more jubilant sonic environment.

The route Holter charts is not a straight one, though, and ‘Underneath the Moon’ is a voyage all of its own. Filled with a darker sense of tension than ‘I Shall Love 2’ in nonetheless continues to shore up the album’s narrative voice, and it’s this that carries you through to ‘Les Jeux to You’ and ‘Words I Heard’, where Holter’s offers some, perhaps, slightly more conventional songs.

It’s impressive, after Have You In My Room, that Holter has produced something even more expansive, full of effective twists and turns and packed with musical trapped doors that are utterly engrossing. It’s bold, in the age of listener built playlists and radio singles, that she’s devised a record in which none of the 15 tracks make complete sense without the other 14. Aviary, as a whole, is such an absorbing journey that it stands as a beacon of hope among discussions about the future of the album format, conceived by one of the most unerringly forward-thinking artists practising at the moment.