Julia Holter

Loud City Song

Loudness isn’t a quality one associates with Julia Holter. Her previous two releases, Tragedy and Ekstasis, were anything but brash – not restrained, exactly, because she drew on a well of emotion for moments of unexpected power, but they were mostly gentle, pensive albums. And although she is a Los Angeles native and resident, her songs showed little sign of their urban origins. This was intensely introspective music, born of the bedroom studio.


On Loud City Song, her first full release on Domino, Holter has said that rather than "pulling songs out of [her]self," she decided to "come at it from a different place and engage with society." If this is Holter’s version of a state-of-the-nation album, her methods are unconventional: she has based it on Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi and its glitzy Hollywood musical adaptation. Holter was especially influenced by a scene from the film when Gigi enters the Paris restaurant Maxim’s on the arm of a famous bachelor. The other diners are immediately silenced, and then start up their chattering again, exercised by what they have just seen. The moment captures effectively the timeless dynamics of gossip and intrigue, but here it speaks for something more. What occupies Holter is the place of the individual in the crowd and in society, especially the sometimes overwhelming version that is city life. And as an artist, she is individual in both senses: her music, with its ambition and abstruse references, reveals a distinct, unusual sensibility, and until now she has operated alone on most of her tracks.


This time around she had the budget to record in a studio, where she worked with a cast of horn and string players. On much of the album their contributions boost the sound, whether to jarring, claustrophobic effect as ‘Maxim’s II’ spirals into dissonance, or providing a bed of soaring strings on ‘Maxim’s I’. Each of these songs is a negative of the other, sharing lyrics but little else. Occasionally the album does indeed get loud, but for the most part the new instrumentation gives the album a physical presence: percussion is often shunned in favour of keyboard and string swells, or pulsing trombone and saxophone, as on the aptly titled ‘Horns Surrounding Me’.


Yet for all the album’s richness and detail, there is little sense of the city’s multiplicity. Instead, we only really see Holter, or the character that she is playing. Her lovely voice grows more confident with each album but it is on the thin side, and when pitched high it risks being smothered by its lush accompaniment. She avoids this trap here by playing with her delivery: on ‘Maxim’s I’ and ‘Maxim’s II’ she adopts an exaggerated, vaguely European accent, while in the first half of ‘In The Green Wild’ she resembles Joni Mitchell, her voice veering between conversational and singsong falsetto. Holter has always favoured repetition, and that is in evidence here – few songs have a verse-chorus structure, so the momentum often comes from her singing. She commands attention, and there is little doubt that we are in her world: these songs are mostly monologues, without straightforward storytelling, and the lyrics are often impressionistic sketches, stitching together fragments. Album opener ‘World’ sets the tone: Holter seems isolated ("I don’t know how I wear a hat so much, even when I run. The city can’t see my eyes under the brim") and a little lost.


Is there any room for others? Two songs hint at intimacy. ‘Hello Stranger’, a cover of a Barbara Lewis song, is a cousin of Ekstasis‘ ‘In the Same Room’, both sounding like 60s pop filtered through a gauze of memories. Here, when she borrows someone else’s words, Holter is at her most direct, welcoming some long lost love who has "stopped by to say hello". But as the song stretches beyond six minutes, Holter’s fragile coos become less and less promising – "please don’t treat me like you did before", she asks, "because I still love you so". The connection is just as fleeting on ‘He’s Running Through My Eyes’, although now Holter is the evasive party: this time, she insists, her "stubborn mind will take her love seriously," but it is hard to believe her as her bewitching vocals float away.


Holter does acknowledge the city’s charms. ‘This is A True Heart’, the album’s most straightforwardly enjoyable song, settles into a yacht rock groove that would make Ariel Pink proud. This is music for cruising around LA, Holter’s vocals at once affectless and coquettish. "Come, let’s not insist on ‘love,’" she sings. "We’re just alive." It’s a seductive message, and we can’t help wanting to join Holter for the ride. But she sounds most free when she leaves it all behind on the stunning In the Green Wild: "I’m done. Off to the wild for me." Halfway through, the song opens up: it suddenly feels boundless, as strings swoop and Holter hovers above it all. Hers is an almost Romantic wonder in the face of nature, but it stops short of full embrace – after Holter describes a flower "laughing so naturally", her attempts at laughter are flat, as if she can’t truly commune with what she sees.


Ultimately, Holter doesn’t choose between the city and the wild, isolation and the collective. She says that the album is "about someone trying to find love and truth in a superficial society," and it’s that deliberation and striving that it dramatises effectively. These are predominantly questions of youth and, accomplished as Holter is, she also sounds like someone still trying to figure things out. There is a searching, open-ended quality to her work, despite Loud City Song and Tragedy‘s impressive conceptual integrity. Each release is distinct and yet overlapping, like circles in a Venn diagram: ‘Goddess Eyes’ premiered on one album and appeared, twice, on the next; ‘Maxim’s II’ originated in the Ekstasis sessions.


People will claim, considering Loud City Song‘s relatively slick production and shorter songs, that Holter’s craft is becoming increasingly polished, but that doesn’t quite hold. It is an easier, more focused listen than Ekstasis, but there is nothing here to rival that album’s ‘Marienbad’ for sophisticated songwriting – and, besides, like other artists from the LA underground, her music rejects the simplistic opposition of "pop" and "experimental". By that same logic, it’s hard to envisage a "definitive" release. Holter will keep on taking inspiration from life and art and negotiating their dilemmas – all without raising her voice.

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