Four albums into her career, Have You In My Wilderness is Julia Holter’s most impassioned work to date, brightly tender and intimately confrontational. With her vocals vividly inhabiting the centre of her songs, she bounds briskly in the foreground and fearlessly comes in close, sometimes pulling sharply away from one side or with fingers that fail to clasp, but with a glance that fixes and stays.
Holter is without a contemporary: her compositions are uniquely exacting and esoteric. She may be considered alongside Laurel Halo, Holly Herndon, and Julianna Barwick, all hardworking female musicians who sculpt complex, multi-layered sounds, with ambient textures set against moments of harsh discord; and more loosely, Björk, Grimes, and Joanna Newsom, all of whose reaches extend far beyond music, ranging widely across the arts and still summoning with each new album a set sensations highly personal and discrete. In recent years, perhaps the best counterpart to Have You In My Wilderness is Grouper’s Ruins – which in its stripped-down way, focuses equally on the piano and the sea. All of which does little more than to suggest that Holter is within a pantheon of women at the forefront of modern music.
But if there is one musician with whom Holter most closely shares, it is John Cale. It is that strange and captivating combination of elements: a classically-turned mind with a ready aptitude for the baroque or more delicately ornate, which at the same time tends towards music’s sharper edges, featuring drones and dissonances, and with oblique lyrics which serve as portals and frames.
Her first three albums were explicitly conceptual: Tragedy, built around the extended track ‘Goddess Eyes’ with its line ‘I can see you, but my eyes are not allowed to cry’, was based on Euripides Hippolytus; Ekstasis was compelled by the 1961 Alain Resnais/Alain Robbe-Grillet film Last Year at Marienbad; and Loud City Song was inspired by the 1958 musical version of Gigi. So Holter’s art is full of the cinema and literature as much as it draws from other musical sources, and she has consistently cited illuminated manuscripts as an influence on her work, and pulled into the worlds of her songs lines by Colette, by Virginia Woolf and Frank O’Hara.
Have You In My Wilderness bears traces of Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, of Colette’s novella Chance Acquaintances, and of Scott Walker’s ballad ‘Duchess’. But it eschews the narrative thrust characteristic of Tragedy and Loud City Song to emerge as a looser series of interconnected pieces. These share certain themes and locales, the repeated imagery of the beach, of waves, and of swimming, and they are populated by lone figures, half-seen, the sites of uncertain relationships and brief dalliances, summoned from the still-present near-past. But each offers something of its own story and follows its own momentum, ebbing and flowing between phrases, the stimulation of a specific moment and setting.
Holter is joined for Have You In My Wilderness by her regular collaborator Cole Marsden Greif-Neill, who produced the record, and by a group of Los Angeles musicians including Christopher Votek on cello, Andrew Tholl on violin, Chris Speed on saxophone, Danny Meyer on saxophone and clarinet, Devin Hoff on bass, and Corey Fogel and Kenny Gilmore on percussion, most of whom also appeared on Loud City Song.
‘Feel You’ opens Have You In My Wilderness with its turning clavinet and cooing, before Holter’s voice carries over resolute percussion with a suggestive account of a trip to Mexico City. Warm and wet, Holter is both the demure woman in her raincoat, waiting patiently with fluttering chest for a glimpse of love, and the mysterious soul of the song’s myth. ‘Feel You’ opens out and surges with strings before immersing itself again, closing with a spoken-word passage and a final return to the hook, ‘I see a flashing light / I’m blinded by it (the possibility) / It’s impossible to see / Who I’m waiting for / In my raincoat’.
It is a tantalising and ardent evocation, and following this urban opening – in this sense a continuation of Loud City Song – Holter relocates for the wilderness of the album’s title, which is the coast. ‘Silhouette’ shuffles and slinks forth coyly, before climbing to a crescendo of keys and swirling, overlapping utterances. On ‘How Long?’, Holter deepens her voice and sings slowly amidst a developing chamber of sound, pulling away in the second part as the accompaniment halts and introduces the reverberating refrain, ‘All the people run from the horizon’. A distant bass is dolorously plucked.
Holter lingers over words just long enough to suggest secrets, and to render musical patterns anew. ‘Lucette Stranded On the Island’ – the first of three pieces lasting more than six minutes – is an elegant shanty, with jangling bottles and the misty ocean air, as Holter begins, ‘I call my name aloud / Looking for what I remember / My name I know / I love going to the movies’. The song tells a tale of a woman marooned in place and in romance. Its lines become interwoven with the plaintive refrain ‘The birds can sing their song’, in a manner at once droll and richly expressive – and reminiscent Einar Örn’s bathtub – the swooping of gulls and the frolicking of mermaids.
‘Sea Calls Me Home’ – one of two songs on Have You In My Wilderness reformulated from 2010’s Live Recordings – opens in the bright morning, with Holter declaring ‘I don’t need no one to follow’. Pushing against propulsive percussion and jaunting harpsichord, she announces ‘I can’t swim – / It’s lucidity / So clear!’, before waterfront whistling and a scalding saxophone-led jazz break precede a quieter close, as treading water she listens to ‘hear small words from the shore / No recognised pattern’.
As its title indicates, ‘Night Song’ marks a shift at the halfway point of Have You In My Wilderness, as we exchange blue skies and the sea salt breeze for something darker, sober and enclosed. ‘Night Song’ is the most overtly sexual track on the album, sweeping strings and padding synths underlying Holter’s direct address: ‘Fingers situate themselves / In dark’, and in an eloquently haunting vision ‘I throw / A box-full of oranges / Syrup seeping out / Searching for a season smell’, as she desperately requests ‘Show me now / Show me your second face’. And she is left to wonder and lament, ‘What did I do / To make you feel / So bad / What did I do / That you would make me feel / So bad’. Her delivery is careful and voluptuous, subsumed by the night.
Beginning with skewed bell chimes before striding forward on drums, ‘Everytime Boots’ is a departure for Holter, immediate, wide-eyed and wondrous with a smoky country feel. The sultry, soft-lipped opening of ‘Betsy On the Roof’ is immediately offset by the exclamation ‘”Uh oh!” / She said / “Uh oh!”‘, in a song whose dynamics jar and switch from phrase to phrase. It builds and drives and pulls apart on the poles of an enfolding vocal, crashing cymbals, and the screeching noises of the street. Holter offers an entreaty to the title character, stating ‘I’m standing here on the ground, Betsy’, and asking ‘Won’t you please / Tell me the answer / You know the answer’, alternately tight and full-throated. Her piano dwells and the song ends.
‘Vasquez’ – loosely based on the life of the nineteenth-century California bandido Tiburcio Vásquez, after whom the Vasquez Rocks were named – sounds like In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis, with loping, looping, rumbling percussion, whirring patches of synthesized sound, spare bass, and unfolding saxophone. It conjures a grand and scattered space.
The urge to run, sometimes to but mostly from something – from the sun, from a crowd, but most of all from an encounter, from a love – has been a constant gesture throughout Have You In My Wilderness, present on ‘Feel You’, ‘How Long?’, and ‘Night Song’: a play for freedom and escape in fraught yet supple balance with the sense that the songs enact the resolution to stay and attempt recourse. The title track and the album’s close, ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ opens with the far-off field sound of birds, then a choral melody and Holter comes in encompassing the heart of her song: ‘Shake me awake! / Am I the man you see / Through your mystery eyes?’.
Roles are reversed, as Holter adopts the perspective of a man seeking the embrace of his unsteady longed-for female partner. He is graceful and forlorn, offering promises, ‘You’ll see lightning cascading / Pronouncements of our love’; but as love drifts and the music returns to the surf, over the ‘shoo-wop’, sawing strings, and sparse clangs of the piano, the ensuing climax is both accusatory and self-excoriating, as the lover repeats a losing challenge, ‘Tell me, why do I feel you running away?’. It is a dramatic and unforgettable close to an abiding work of art, ruggedly warm and beautifully wrought.
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