Rating: 4/5A few weeks ago, I read the following dashed-off comparison on someone’s blog: “Julia Holter > Grimes.” It’s the kind of flippant and puckish, but doubtlessly genuine, statement that embodies the worst and best of music discourse on the internet. On the one hand, it gives the false impression that we need to choose between these two artists, and its writer’s choice of one or the other comes across as arbitrary. But on the other hand, it demonstrates the assertive passion with which people feel the need to discuss new music as it’s happening, with little patience for equivocation. In this sense, there’s something actually heartening about the fact that two female artists, so little beholden to the demands of anyone but themselves, are being vociferously argued about with such haste, as if we collectively cannot let their achievements go unrecognized. It’s all the more encouraging given that Holter’s latest album Ekstasis is not the most forthright album; instead, it’s mysterious, introverted and hermetic, the creation of a sealed-off, personal world inside which we are invited to peek. It may be vaguely described as a pop album, but it would be difficult to speak about it in terms of “hooks”: gentle and evanescent, Ekstasis requires that we submit to its rhythms and gravitational pull, becoming entranced in a world that can sometimes be difficult to navigate.
The reason why it may seem difficult to find one’s bearings when initially listening to Ekstasis is that the album feels both highly personal but also not necessarily meant for us to understand, as though it were a recently unearthed text written in a forgotten language. This is similar to Arthur Russell’s masterful home recordings, where he sounds as if he’s singing only to himself (which was partly true, as he wasn’t sure how many people would inevitably hear some of these recordings). Ekstasis is more full-sounding, featuring a number of guests, but though Holter seems to be singing to and for someone more than just herself, we don’t always feel sure that this audience includes us. “Moni Mon Amie” begins, “Moni, mon amie, you will be the death of me,” so that we feels as though we are eavesdropping on something too personal for us to understand. And a number of the songs here, such as “Four Gardens,” sounds like incantations, part of a ritual that doesn’t involve us, but we are nonetheless allowed to observe it from the sidelines.
At times, Holter seems to have absorbed and literalized the inherent “witchiness” of a performer like Stevie Nicks, a quality that also immediately brings to mind Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Another point of comparison might be Beach House, whose singer Victoria Legrand possesses a far different voice than Holter does but who similarly weaves a mysterious aura that draws us in or leaves us isolated on the outside. What these singers have in common is that, unlike pop stars who perform as a way to extend their symbiotic relationship with their fans, they create these personal worlds of theirs and let us peer inside, but they never meet us halfway. It’s our duty to come to them, and this is a powerful statement of strength and self-confidence from these female artists.
Even Grimes’ Claire Boucher might be added to this group, though she is clearly an artist more interested in engaging pop music (but one who makes it ludicrous to regard “accessibility” as a dirty word). This is where Boucher and Holter differ and why the comparison between them only goes so far. Where Holter is influenced by an array of experimental and eccentric music from the 1960s and 1970s – her voice sometimes sound uncannily like a young, less maternal Vashti Bunyan – Boucher seems primarily predisposed towards 1980s and 1990s pop (in addition to being one of the few Western artists to have absorbed the influence of contemporary Korean pop music), filtering her pop star fascinations (Madonna and Mariah Carey) through the same experimental impulse that guides Holter. It says a lot about music discourse today that these two artists are not merely pitted against each other in terms of experimentalism and pop (or its accompanying dichotomy: authenticity versus artificiality). And despite being very different artists, one thing they do have in common in is the way their music suggests a retreat back to childhood. This is evident most prominently in Boucher’s high-pitched, pixie-like voice, but Holter’s album too suggests a constructive form of regression, from its sing-song, nursery rhyme vocals to its generally playful aura.
Children sometimes create their own private spaces in some disused place at home, an attic or basement for example, and this is the spirit in which Ekstasis should be heard. It’s a product of its own language, and its music transpires in a world with its own rules. This isn’t so much a “regression,” though it can often seem far removed from the worldly concerns, and many listeners will probably find aspects of Ekstasis self-indulgent. But that’s partly the point, to indulge in one’s own interiority, which comes under attack far too often today. The difference is apparent when you compare how Holter (or Boucher) approach this retreat into childhood to how some male artists do the same. In the latter case, it can often seem a mere shrugging off of responsibilities, and anyways, there is the matter of men’s inherent privilege that needs to be addressed. For Holter, there’s nothing irresponsible about this move, and on the contrary, this retreat seems purposeful, as if it is a return to a place of origins as a first step to moving forward in a new direction: the album in the form of the cocoon or womb.