Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
–‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’ by Alexander Pope (1735)
I agree. I ‘assent.’ Ekstasis is a lovely record. Bedroom pop that floats and swoons, it has a lightness to it at the same time as a real sense of seriousness and ambition. Pop(era). High and low: Academia and the Underground, Anne Carson and Ariel Pink, Mythos and Melody. On the one hand, Euripides, Sappho, Cage, concrète, cello, Chion, the conservatoire. On the other, synths, canned drums, ambient drones and supple tunes, Kate Bush, Enya, New Age, Nite Jewel, Not Not Fun.
Julia Holter makes celestial lo-fi with lofty, hi-fi aspirations. That is her appeal. That is the balancing act that she got so utterly right on 2011’s Tragedy, the record that catapulted her from the obscure netherworlds of art-school experimentalism (2008’s re-imagining of Cage’s ’___, ___ ___ circus on ___’ eventually released on CD-R as Cookbook and 2010’s collection of urban field-recordings Celebration) right into the center of the alt mainstream.
Ekstasis will surely cement her position there. It involves precisely the same double-logic as Tragedy, except with the exact opposite orientation. Where Tragedy was an overtly conceptual, experimental record with a pop flavor, Ekstasis is a pop record with a dash or three of experimentalism. And it works. As I say, it’s lovely; finely crafted; elegant; a really nice listen. As a result, it will probably endear Holter to more rather than fewer listeners. But to these ears at least, it also feels like a retraction: a withering of ambition, a withdrawal in too many places of precisely the things that made Tragedy so special and unique.
Given that the two records were apparently conceived contemporaneously, it’s interesting to reflect on the order in which they were released. Because if Ekstasis had come out first, I may well have liked it more. I’d probably have heard a record bristling with ‘promise,’ a marked improvement on the endearing but awkward naivety of 2007’s Eating the Stars (since re-released on Sixteen Tambourines), and Tragedy would have registered as an almighty payoff: narratively, the perfect fulfillment of Holter’s artistic telos.
Instead, Holter plumped for the much harder option. She released her ‘difficult’ record first and emerged already ‘complete,’ already the finished article, as if from nowhere. All credit to her. But the result is that Ekstasis really feels like a supplement. It’s less complete, less daring, less moving than its predecessor: just less all around, in fact.
There’s nothing here with the depth and beauty of “The Falling Age,” for instance, or the subtle complexity of “Tragedy Finale.” Even “This is Ekstasis,” for me the standout track here, belongs — ironically — more to Tragedy’s soundworld than Ekstasis’. And it’s not at all clear why “Goddess Eyes” needed to appear twice on this album when it had already featured so prominently at the center of the last one. Is it really such a special song? No, I don’t think it is. Are the two versions really so different? No, I don’t think they are.
The upshot is that Ekstasis comes off as something of a footnote, a decent collection of songs from an artist clearly capable of much more. In other words, it’s good. No sneering. Just a ‘hint of fault.’ But I’m genuinely surprised that elsewhere on the web, this is the record being lauded as Holter’s magnum opus. To me, it just feels so obviously the other way round. This is the bridge, not the destination.