This isn’t an album to solve, it’s meant to get lost in.
Every genius needs some time in the wilderness. Greek myth-sampling, chamber experimenting, GiGi recomposing Julia Holter hinted at this with her striking 2015 album Have You in My Wilderness. But Wilderness was in the same vein as fellow highfalutin master Joanna Newsom’s Divers. Released in the same year, they were highlights in their respective discographies, but also condensed their artists’ visions into a near pop structure, as accessible as either of them was ever going to get. Newsom’s journey into friendlier territories was a response to the massive, three-freakin’ disc Have One on Me. Holter, instead, may have made her own version of that after hitting her commercial peak. Aviary is her real meditation out in the lost woods. Like Newsom’s sprawling set, both albums are indulgent, mammoth, wonky and stunningly, unbelievably gorgeous.
This is kitchen-sink chamber music, Holter throwing old Korgs and Stradivarius violins at each other just to see what happens. Drum machines, indie keyboards and loopy, sampled vocal lines all follow Holter’s declarations of love and visions of the apocalypse. Holter loves creating build-ups on Aviary, but it’s never a straightforward crescendo. Humming bagpipes might suddenly take over the song, or her choruses might fade into a spoken word soliloquy, the tempo and dynamics dipping in and out of coherence before barreling toward a bone-shaking climax. It’s a damn loud album too. Holter always had a knack for beautiful suffocation in her music, but here the sound is wide and all-encompassing–these are bombs going off.
The flurry of sounds doesn’t often ascend to rationality. The groove on “Underneath the Moon” won’t quite click with Holter’s voice. But if you don’t like something, it’s like the weather in Texas–just wait a minute and it’ll change. The second half of “Underneath the Moon” evolves into an off-the-wall Graceland bounce, as lovely as it is confounding. As the song shapeshifts, Holter pleasantly cries “hysteria!”
Holter described Aviary as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world,” but it certainly feels like the mind is feeling the heat as well. “Everyday is an Emergency” into “Another Dream” is a meta scale mindfuck. The former, with its air-raid siren opening, is the harshest Holter’s ever sounded. The machine guns are firing, the army’s invading and we get to watch all the blood and guts in High-Def. It eventually sinks to a calmer morass, fading into the woozy synths of “Another Dream,” a Bjorkian safe place from the terrors of the world. Well, until “Another Dream” collapses in on itself and ends with a long, blackened drone. Even in sleep there is no escape from the startling cries of the aviary.
With her constant dabbling in ambient, it’s no surprise that her work often takes on a dream-like logic, and Loud City Song loved dipping into nightmares. But Aviary is the first time that the bad dreams have won out. The elegant “In the Gardens of Muteness” plays like a lost Radiohead piano ballad with less nervous twitching and more wallowing melancholy.
Despite the bad vibes, there are moments that are simply the year’s most beautiful stretches of sound. “In the Gardens” owns a toe-curling melody line that closes the song. The symphony that descends with a drone at the end of “Colligere” is ear-shattering in volume, but also reforms into a calm cocoon to rest in. “Words I Hear” with booming, radiant piano chords, rippling synths and a chirping string section is unearthly. It is singular in its beauty. “I Shall Love 1” simply says ”I shall love/ I am waiting for you, come on over” even as apocalyptic bagpipes roar into view. It’s a primal “She’s So Heavy” sort of scream. Elsewhere she sings “I am in love, what can I do…there is nothing else.” With Aviary she is lost in love and uses it as an erasure of identity and time.
Holter’s last few records could seem like oblique vignettes or miraculous puzzle boxes to poke at. But this isn’t an album to solve, it’s meant to get lost in. Considering her well-documented love of Greek mythology, it’s appropriate that with her longest album, she’s created her own labyrinth.