It’s ironic that How To Dress Well comes off so much more ominously with their covers and titles than Holy Other, when what Holy Other does with his honeyed R&B samples is so much more chilling. Where Tom Krell personalized the samples with his own vocals, however shrilly recorded, Holy Other lets these chopped spits of coo circle each other in a hopelessly lost series of passes in the pitch-black void. These voices have no song in which to make themselves whole: they are fragments that never add up. As such, Held is an album of immense contradiction. Starting with the cover image, the album can easily be seen as a musing upon the vaporous dishevelment of sanctimony and sentimentality that we know we will die with, and not the person. The union between two lovers of which these fragments once likely sang is never truly holdable. The embrace itself is only an endless loop that we play to ourselves to make the void awaiting us seem less real.
These are songs past yearning. I picture a vast rotunda swirling with bits of shredded red ribbon, dark as space itself but still somehow not black enough to obscure the shreds, winking in some failed bid at significance. There is a rhythmic center to most of the tracks and a cool sort of chillout room thing happening at a glance. But deeper immersion reveals an agitation. There used to be a face to these tortured emotions, but now they are just the flailing face of torture itself, even if there is no concrete image. The face is snapping fingers, cufflinks, high heels, hair gel, gleaming chrome, pearls, and curled lips in a scream. The face is fetish in the light and unending need when that light is taken away. Style and substance are too close for comfort, and the baseness of that comfort zone has never changed “I want someone to share my messy bed with.” The absence of grace can displace but never outweigh the absence of the person.
In facing loss and aloneness, beauty takes on impractical and unwieldy forms. Held is impractical (it’ll never work on the dance floor) and ultimately unwieldy in the vastness of its fragmentation. Slow as these songs are, they are jittery and anxious. They can’t sit still with the listener and muse. They are all the time descending, but surreptitiously gouging themselves on parapets and balconies along the way. The album’s title screams with the agony of the past tense, the unretrievable. But the music fumbles rather than drops like a stone at this absolute, perhaps no more dramatically than around the two-minute mark on “In Difference” with the beat dropping, dropping, dropping then another R&B poltergeist abruptly piping up, seeming to plead “eat my heart” with you for 30 more seconds.
At the risk of alienating potential listeners, I’d say Held is an incredibly disquieting mood record. It doesn’t always feel that way, but just when you start to get cozy, something unnervingly static creeps in. It’s compelling the extent to which breathy samples like these have taken on a complex life of their own in underground music: that there’s still remnants of the original intention, but obscured to the point of near inanity. Holy Other has made an album that impressively struts that inanity out for a crestfall like none other. But Held is a cool record. You may wind up hearing it at a gallery or a boutique or something, but its madness and ache will seep through much more subliminally than Portishead’s breakthrough record that was similarly repurposed as chic background music. Held is as sputtering as it is spartan, and as such the perfect tome to the eternal wretchedness that surrounds human need.