‘rooted in equal parts medieval Baroque, 20th Century experimentalism and West Coast pop songwriting‘ – Hugh McCabe on Julia Holter‘s Have You In My Wilderness
The first notes to be heard on Julia Holter’s new album, Have You In My Wilderness, are played on a harpsichord. The harpsichord is a curious instrument, halfway between a guitar and a piano. Like a piano, it is played by pressing keys on a keyboard, but like a guitar, the strings are plucked rather than struck with a hammer. It was popular during the Baroque period but then largely supplanted by the piano, which allowed more nuanced playing, and was therefore more in keeping with the Classical and Romantic periods that followed. The plucking mechanism limits the dynamic range of the instrument, lending it a somewhat formal and austere quality: expressiveness is out, intricate harmonic and melodic arrangements are in. The harpsichord is a fitting instrument for Julia Holter, as her music eschews the kind of emotional histrionics that are the stock-in-trade of many songwriters, and instead opts for a more cerebral approach that is rooted in equal parts medieval Baroque, 20th Century experimentalism and West Coast pop songwriting. All of Holter’s previous albums were elaborate conceptual exercises with songs derived from very specific source materials (her 2011 debut Tragedy was based on the Greek play Hippolytus and her 2012 album Ekstasis was inspired by the Alan Resnais film Last Year In Marienbad) but Have You In My Wilderness is being touted as a more direct affair, a set of standalone songs with no overarching concept linking them together, and a different approach that sets aside the knowing formalisms in favour of something more intimate and personal.
Thankfully this isn’t really the case. Have You In My Wilderness may be the Holter album that leans most firmly towards the classic melodic songwriting of her home state of California, but it does this without abandoning the conceptual richness that characterises her best work and without succumbing to the dreary solipsism of the troubled troubadours. For example, on the opening track Feel You, the initial cascade of harpsichord notes is quickly engulfed by a beautifully lush and organic arrangement that swells into the most flat-out gorgeous thing she has ever done. It’s breezy and ecstatic, feels like the sun coming up over the San Fernando valley and wouldn’t be out of place on a classic mid-70s Fleetwood Mac record. Yet it also accommodates an ominous and ornate string arrangement that serves as a counterpoint to the dazzling vocal melody, it dissolves into an ambiguous and unstructured spoken word section towards the end and the lyrics speak of running away from the sun and holing up in a rainy Mexico City. While nothing else on the album has quite the same upbeat endorphin rush as Feel You, everything has the same lavishness and consideration in its arrangements, and everything pulls off the same delicate balancing act between melodic warmth and cool intellect. Have You In My Wilderness is also the most organic band-sounding record Holter has made, even if those core tracks are often augmented by luxurious arrangements of choral backing vocals, strings, flutes, trumpets, voices and found sounds.
Lyrically the album is awash with imagery of the sea, but this is no eulogy to the glorious Californian coastline. Holter’s characters are alone and huddled on desolate beaches, the weather is bleak, rainy and cloudy, and the fog is rolling in towards the lighthouse. When How Long breaks down into a sparse refrain where she sings “All the people run from the horizon” we think of fleeing from the ocean and Romantic notions of the sea as something elemental, overwhelming and beyond our understanding or control. While Julia Holter’s music follows in the footsteps of the adventurous work of fellow Californians like Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks it rarely evokes the sun, surf and easy life of the West Coast sound, opting instead for something that sounds like it would be more at home in the chillier climes of Edgar Allen Poe’s New England. When she does situate a song more directly in her home state, it’s a darker version of California than we might be used to, an unveiling of ambiguous histories. The narrator of Vasquez is the Monterey born Mexican-American outlaw, Tiburcio Vásquez, who left a long and bloody trail right through the Californian state before being finally apprehended and subsequently executed in 1875. Vásquez was a violent criminal and regarded with widespread disdain, yet nevertheless was also a figure of admiration to many Mexicans who saw him as someone willing and able to kick against unjust laws and state corruption. Musically Vasquez is the jazziest song on the record, channeling the transcendent sounds of the great Alice Coltrane and abandoning structure halfway through to venture into something freeform and exploratory. Lucette Stranded On The Island is the one other track on Have You that has an explicit literary or historical source. It’s based on a novella by the French writer Colette about a woman who is taken away on a ship by her lover. After attacking her, he steals her jewels and abandons her on a Balearic island. Holter’s song however is no literal retelling of the story but rather an attempt to inhabit the character. It’s subtle and enigmatic. In spite of the terrible thing that has happened to her, Lucette seems oddly at peace in the empty and desolate place she wakes up in.
It probably goes without saying that the musicianship on Have You is superb but it’s worth singling out Devin Hoff’s upright bass playing. Like Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album, he’s the centre of gravity around which many of the songs revolve, but he also doesn’t hesitate to veer off on spiralling tangents and help coax the music towards unexpected nooks and crannies. The album is full of such unpredictable twists and these serve to open up spaces within the music that are then filled with a dizzying array of textures, sounds and moods. It’s dense and complex but wears its ambition lightly, as at the centre of it all is Holter’s beautiful voice providing the anchor to which everything else is moored. Have You In My Wilderness has a cool head and a warm heart. It’s rich and satisfying and highly recommended.
Have You In My Wilderness is out now on Domino Records.