Julia Holter has recorded some of the most impressive albums of melodic art music of the past five years, although their erudition and abstraction haven’t always pulled in listeners right away. This issue is remedied by her fourth album, Have You In My Wilderness, which comes out today. The new album finds Holter focusing on musical foundations, starting with an enhanced melodic role for her distinctive voice, a fetching soprano scrubbed of any trace of vibrato or drawl. Dig her almost comically exquisite enunciation in the chorus of “Sea Calls Me Home”: “I can’t swim/It’s lucidity so clear.”
A masterful arranger, Holter has tended toward skeletal compositions that can highlight a multitracked layer of airy vocals or (with her last album, 2013’s excellent Loud City Song) an unexpected string section. By contrast, the new album features some of her busiest songs, as Holter increasingly fires all her musical guns at once. Okay, that’s probably a ridiculous metaphor — in actuality, songs like “Feel You” retain the elegance you might associate with a classic Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick recording.
The John Cage tricks and Laurie Anderson vocal treatments from prior records are largely gone on the new record, but there’s still this thing that happens in Julia Holter’s albums. A song will be moving along at a stately pace — keyboard tones burble, strings swell and weave, drums tap out an unhurried gallop — when suddenly the rhythmic motion of the song comes to an abrupt stop. As space fills up the recording, details of instrumental sound at a standstill become revealed, like peering closely at a thickly textured oil painting. When the song resumes, the effect is magical, as heard on tracks like “Vasquez.”
2015 is proving to be rich with great music — really, scan the posts of this blog if you haven’t in awhile — but Have You In My Wilderness will surely rise to the cream of this year’s crop.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs at musicalurbanism.org and is writing a book about Martha & the Muffins and the late 70s/early 80s downtown Toronto music scene.