The second track on Julia Holter’s Have You in My Wilderness, “Silhouette”, is for the first 3 minutes a brisk and tingling expression of a distant love. It’s perfectly pleasant with an endless supply of breezy drum-fills and fluttering violins. The last minute is different. In a sudden crescendo, the reverb on everything is cranked up and Holter’s echoes start to layer one another. The earlier percussion instruments and strings begin a nightmarish escalation that alternates between impending doom and untouchable euphoria. When the wave finally breaks and the song ends, listeners are left, gasping, washed ashore.
That sequence caps off what I’d like to think of as “art pop.” It’s a label that’s been applied to Holter’s work in the past, but it can be hard to articulate without actually hearing those instances. These are moments that leave us asking, “What was that all about?” and then beckon us to dive deeper into the less accessible “art” part of the equation. It’s not just about knocking you off your feet, but inviting you to get back up and see what else is going on — what themes brought out that moment? Where does that moment fit into a story? What did I miss?
Have You n My Wilderness is full of those moments, from the slow apocalyptic chant (“All the people / run from the horizon”) of “How Long?” to the general playful harmony of every instrument on “Feel You.” Its success at producing truly gorgeous sounds, steeped in a classical aesthetic that rewards close listening, is what cements Holter’s place as a singular creator of art-pop.
Her last album, 2013’s Loud City Songs, was a dream-like concept album based on the novella and play Gigi. Although Have You in My Wilderness is faster paced and with more tangible structures, it’s still full of that intoxicating air of dreams. The stretched out, atmospheric songs of her last album might have been dream-like because they mimicked what it felt like to be floating and anchor-less and unconscious. This time around, they’re more like how a dream would be portrayed on a movie screen — it’s clearer and cinematic, but that itself aids listeners in understanding the feeling. A song like “Everytime Boots” may have a lot of finger-snapping bounce, but its heavy crystal cave reverb and open clearings make it weightless.
Holter’s writing takes on the approach you might find in literary fiction short stories or chapbook poetry: delicate human instances and flashes of the heart, expanded and explored, but mostly just suggesting situations for the audience to digest. That’s not to say that these are “growers” — they’re instantly appealing, but to figure out why, and just how much you can get out of it, takes one of those inspired deep-dives.
Due to her training and music background, a lot of acclaim is heaped on her composition, but her singing is just as worthy: every sung syllable is meticulously considered and timed and every tone seems to define the rest of the song. The title track takes special advantage of this, putting her voice so far up at the front of the stage it balances on a precarious edge. When she begins “Shake me awake / am I the man you see through your mystery eyes? / Oh, yeah, I second that emotion,” her choices in briefly tapping the consonants make you feel like you’re taking a microscope to her voice.
Depth is a tough thing to accomplish. It can’t merely be present, it also has to be convincing that it’s there and worthwhile. Have You in My Wilderness’ best quality is that it won’t let you down if you get up close and sit with it for a while. B PLUS