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Julia Holter - Aviary Music Album Reviews

The Los Angeles musician’s fifth studio album is the most joyous, daring realization of her experimental tendencies yet: a sprawling, 90-minute search for meaning in a dehumanizing age.

At the heart of Julia Holter’s pristine chamber pop there exist a felt wisdom and a profound poise. Like a deep breath on a subway car, or a private meditation amid a bustling city street, her songs exude an elegant calm, but they do not often stay still. They dramatize; they swarm. Her work frequently references and even quotes such writers as the Greek playwright Euripides, the French novelist Colette, and the poet Frank O’Hara, but never at the expense of her own composed voice. Classicism and chaos rarely glide together as easefully, or as eloquently, as in a Julia Holter song. “Try to make yourself a work of art,” she sang in bold, augmented measures on her 2011 debut, Tragedy, and there was an innate humanity in that “try.” Holter’s music ushers us along.

Holter’s new album, Aviary, is an odyssey stretching, sky-like, across 90 glorious minutes. She says the title came from a line in a book by the Lebanese-American writer Etel Adnan—“I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds”—and is meant to evoke the way memories, beautiful and horrifying, fly around in our minds, echoing the grating noise of the world. That sense of muchness makes for the purest and most daring realization of Holter’s experimental tendencies yet. In the wake of her enchanting trio of singer-songwriter LPs—2012’s Ekstasis, 2013’s Loud City Song, and 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness—this feels like gleeful anarchy. Evoking Holter’s live performances, her seriously locked-in ensemble brings an improvisatory energy to Aviary, weaving together strings, trumpet, and the fantastic drone of bagpipes. The whole album seems to vibrate.

If Holter’s preceding records were novellas, Aviary feels more like a meticulously organized compilation of mind-altering field notes in which a single page can be a world, and its depth is stunning. Songs seem to exist within other songs. Exploring the album feels like walking through a house, where each of its 15 tracks is a room, a repository for another brilliant idea: medieval polyphony, Tibetan Buddhist chanting, the poet Sappho, Dante’s Inferno, even the outer limits of new wave. Each Aviary track is an extreme and immersive sensory experience. “Chaitius” could soundtrack a ballet; “Everyday Is an Emergency” sounds trapped inside a haunted mansion. Holter is often in conversation with ancient realms, and she sings words like “bubonic,” “hysteria,” and “stunning architecture” with disarming ease. (She recently expressed an interest in “the way monks would make art.”) These eccentricities are thrilling to move between. Aviary ultimately has the effect of looking through a new friend’s bookshelf, accessing the wild particularities of their mind.

The ascending, ecstatic centerpiece “I Shall Love 2” finds an unlikely predecessor in the space-rock romanticism of Spiritualized. The galactic piano ballad “Les Jeux to You” recalls Kate Bush, and is but one Aviary song where Holter makes her lyrics—reminiscent, on the page, of a dense Gertrude Stein poem—sound like an IMAX movie. “Voce Simul,” which evokes Meredith Monk’s extended vocal technique and contains the quintessential Holter lyric, “I always find myself dead, from a 14th century,” is another. Opener “Turn the Light On” is an awe-filled microcosm of Aviary as a whole: Rejecting conventional pop structure in favor of rolling, nonlinear majesty, it flutters from one burst of euphoria to another, like cosmic jazz. (Holter sings of eating “Sierra stars.”) “Turn the Light On” feels like something breaking down on its way out of the solar system—astral, endless, but with a spirited wrongness.

A most unlikely highlight, “Everyday Is an Emergency”—not “every day” but “everyday,” hinting at the terror in the quotidian—centers the droning, atonal bagpipe playing of Tashi Wada before turning into a brutal twisted-fantasy ballad. Playfully apocalyptic, it is a soundtrack for the end times, as Holter sings, “Heaven in the Human in the Arches in the Weather in the Table in the Somber in the Clanging in the Kingdom in the Wretched […] in the Excess […] in the Burning.” The bagpipe sound, in particular, is shocking. Holter also joined Wada—as did her drummer, Corey Fogel—on a recent Frkwys album celebrating and featuring Tashi’s father, the Fluxus musician Yoshi Wada. This is a telling intergenerational connection. It’s not hard to imagine Holter drawing inspiration from the elder Wada’s 1985 bagpipe drone epic Off the Wall—a loud, almost alarming music that Wada himself said at once can conjure “a dreamlike world” and “keep [him] awake.” Holter does something similar.

Aviary’s sprawl reflects the chaos of 2018, in which linear thinking and conventional structures of any sort can feel no match for nonsensical unrest, violence, and unspeakable tragedy. Sometimes, the wisest thing anyone can do, in such a crisis, is acknowledge the complexity of being a person—and, if only for an hour and a half, search for beauty in the unresolvability of it all. “In all the human errors, there is something true,” Holter sings on “I Shall Love 2”: “What do the angels say? I shall love.” Spiraling towards the heavens, it sounds like a prayer for the human race. In the overwhelmingness of human life there is also infinite possibility. Holter, sage-like, makes that clear on Aviary.

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