Julia Holter’s music has always suggested a crossroads between what is accessible and alienating; what is pop and what is confident, modern composition. In Have You in My Wilderness, she has sought to directly accommodate both styles, and to move away from the aural and thematic structures that characterized much of her earlier albums.
Prior to this release, Julia Holter’s music had always been thematically anchored by an overall theme. A classically trained musician, she had flirted with John Cage and the musique concrete earlier in her career. Inspired by Euripides’ play Hippolytus, her major debut Tragedy was a tour-de-force of cryptic revelations and formal deconstructions. Her subsequent effort Ekstasis followed in that tradition (named after the same Greek word for “to be or stand outside oneself”) whereas her last LP, Loud City Song, was ostensibly centered on Colette’s novella “Gigi”. Despite these pretensions, Holter’s best work has always suggested a sense of mystical tragedy: they prolong tension until their remorse causes the particular pieces to erupt cathartically. The thematic progressions never were burdensome; they made sure the albums remained focused, if not grounded.
Her avant-garde leanings, no doubt, made it hard for the public to embrace her immediately. With Ekstasis, though, she was slowly shifting her music into a more formal, pop-oriented format; her first attempt to comprehensively combine the disparate facets of her music. On 2013’s Loud City Song, Holter still relied on an overall concept, but the music itself was less enigmatic. The arrangements tended to be more straightforward, with an emphasis on atmosphere. Compared to her former efforts, which up to that point had been self-produced (in her own bedroom, no less), it was polished and slickly produced. It left her in a rather peculiar state: how would she build upon her new approach, without compensating her skillful songwriting? More importantly, how would she retain her artistic edge without turning into a clichéd, post-modernist pop diva?
On Have You in My Wilderness, Julia Holter diverges from her traditional thematic mold by presenting each composition as its own, stand-alone lyrical piece; the songs play like a collection of short stories, each with their own specific recollection. In her songwriting, water, unfulfilled relationships, and cigarettes all don symbolic relevance. She traverses through isolation, youthful sentimentality, and surreal exuberance in the space of a few tracks alone. Together, the album begins to exude a dream-like state that is vibrant yet also airy.
The conventional structure of the album—10 tracks, around 40 minutes of duration—ensures that the record is her most accessible yet. Much of that is also due to Holter’s vocals: there’s a certain warmth surrounding her delivery, which varies from the charismatic to the spoken-sung. While in the past her voice could sound sedated, here the vocals are pushed to the forefront on every song. Even in the longer pieces, her presence is felt; her voice isn’t drowned out by the prominent reverb.
She also proves an ability to adopt different personas and employ greater emotional variety in her compositions. The obvious Nico-esque “How Long”, for instance, opens with dissonant violins that accompany her dead-pan delivery. It dissolves into the ether and floats away, only for it to return and leave a dense, morose impression on the listener. The piano-driven “Everytime Boots”, meanwhile, is the logical conclusion of Loud City Song’s “In the Wild Green”, except this time her voice follows along with the ragtime flavor before it too climaxes. The song then descends into momentary confusion, before the melody and her vocals return triumphantly. It is a pleasant country-like ditty that evokes Sinead O’Connor and Enya.
Like Loud City Song, the music is performed and recorded with Julia’s acoustic ensemble. With Cole Marsden Greif-Neill resuming his role as executive producer, this is without a doubt her most thoroughly produced album to date. The production, alongside her revamped vocal presentation, is graciously adorned by meticulous string and horn arrangements, which provide the framework for almost all the tracks. Overall, this results in a sound that is at once lush yet also natural; welcoming without being overbearing. These pieces are Holter’s most outwardly humane ones she’s thus far composed: the songs are impressionistic and immediate.
The immediacy is perhaps best exemplified on “Sea Calls Me Home”, where Holter crafts a miniature “pocket symphony” in the vein of the Beach Boys. Possibly the best track, a Pet Sounds-era harpsichord propels the piece before a ludicrous chorus emerges, in which Julia Holter sings the phrase “I can see, it’s lucidity!”. Here, her delivery renders the chorus instantly catchy, particularly in the way in which she atonally stresses “lu-ci-dity” against the emphatic rhythm. Her singing gives way to whistling, before distant saxophones evoke a quirky maleficence. It’s masterfully executed.
Similarly, “Feel You”, with its pulsating double bass, prominent strings, and whimsical harpsichord opening—which is at once in your face and effortlessly gives way to Holter’s gentle vocals—adorn the lyrics “Who am I waiting for” with genuineness. Elsewhere, “Lucette Stranded on the Island” is noteworthy in the way that its elegant arrangements slowly transform into electronic, raga-like drones. It conjures Ekstasis vividly.
On the other hand, Have You in My Wilderness seems to lack an exploration into the inner psyche; at times, its intimacy limits Holter’s experimentation. Because of the manner in which Holter prioritizes atmosphere, much of the album runs the risk of flying right pass the listener. The vocals, despite their variety, can become rather ponderous in the longer compositions. There are moments of self-indulgence, in which disappointing melodies are seemingly covered by pompous arrangements that seem meandering. This is particularly noticeable in the title track and slow torch piece “Night Song”. Save for the expressive strings at the end, “Have You in My Wilderness” plays as a mid-album track, while the latter is, unfortunately, more style than substance. “Vasquez”, too, is a mixed blessing: though the jazz-fusion here reminds of Herbie Hancock and Air’s Moon Safari, its impact is lost in Holter’s disinterested spoken delivery.
The sheer warmth that oozes from the best songs, however, should compensate for the album’s shortcomings. Julia Holter prospers when her tracks actually develop within their intimacy. It is best summed up in “Silhouette”: “He can hear me sing though he is far”. The listener is always present; in this closeness, he is able to appreciate Holter’s outpouring.
Though the album can be monotonous, it is a sign of her current inspiration, one that draws more from her own expressivity rather than from the obscure. For better or for worse, she is currently composing the most accessible and personal songs of her career. The album’s consistency as a whole might suffer, but at its best, Have You in My Wilderness produces some of the most endearing and sincere pop music you’ll listen to this year.