Julia Holter Loud City Song

[Domino; 2013]

Styles: modernist poetry
Others: Wallace Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Virginia Woolf

Describing how a record sounds is unimportant, unless you’re trying to sell it (or save someone from wasting their money); doing so just reduces the thing to a bunch of tastes, a shopping list of probable adjectives. The music we keep listening to has a life beyond the sounds, a web of possibilities they engender through being listened to, a promise that goes beyond and outside being passively acquired, listened to, and filed away somewhere; it becomes less a record and more a window to a private language we access and reconstruct each time we hear it. As such, each experience we have with important records are at once a process of production and a product we experience, and Loud City Song feels as though it were made from the same process — a deep connection with the text (Gigi, Frank O’Hara, who knows what else) mingling with the personal. It’s a record that feels like it lives in the same way thoughts do, in the same way experience does. Built out of literary experimentation, a dense web of parent texts, gorgeous and daring arrangements, and a desire to reclaim eternal values (love, privacy) out of the welter, Loud City Song is as dense as it is open ended: the further you pry it open, the bigger it becomes.

By imbuing the mundane and commonplace with meaning and peering in and out of perspectives, Julia Holter builds worlds that fold over one another in frameworks of the personal and literary, as if she’s scattering breadcrumbs over a forest from a great height for you to pick out your own meaning. Like any modernist piece of work, Loud City Song consciously walks through paths that have been beaten before, but unravels threads out into new corners and ushers you in; records of this complexity and depth rarely feel so inviting. If making it new — that is, recalling to life the richness and intangibility of experience through mixing the old, the new, and the personal into something distinct — is the promise of modernist art, then Loud City Song deserves to go next to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse instead of whatever Domino is putting out next.

As such, Loud City Song is far more than what it makes reference to, and much of this comes down to Holter’s burgeoning ambition as an arranger and composer. Although the through-composed complexity of “Marienbad” isn’t to be found here, her arrangements defy repetition, building complex, detailed avenues of feeling and form out of orchestra and Korgchestra alike. The ground covered is vast; the progressions in the sparse “World” feel like a cousin to Glassworks robbed of rhythm and stress, but still feel of a piece with the deft jazzy strangeness of “In the Green Wild” to the motorik chanson of “This is a True Heart.”

That reach is mirrored by how her voice has become a more flexible, confident thing, stretching between restraint, chattiness, and force to wear the different hats her songs need. In “Horns Surrounding Me,” she recasts herself as not just within some stripe of urban chaos, but of it, her voice at once stridently directing and being engulfed. When she mourns in “Hello Stranger,” it feels like a necklace being dropped down a very deep well, in direct contrast to the coy chattiness of “In the Green Wild.” Her voice may not stretch everywhere on the scale, but every sound it makes belongs.

Holter has said her lyrics sometimes originate from mesostics (the aleatoric process that John Cage used extensively), and this sense of indeterminacy is what gives Loud City Song its real heft, as the ambiguities and depth she offers are vast and reward repeated listening. Heck, she could be referring to Michael Jackson in the final lines of “Maxim’s II.” With her voice and her music, she evokes; with her words, she invites you to be a part of her meaning, like how she has become consumed within the texts she’s adapted. From the way in which the worlds of the personal and the referential fold over each other into something new, there emerges a personal geography, full of suggestion and silence. Like how something written in parataxis comes alive between the sentences, her text is present and ready, and the sense arrives that the only thing missing is you.

Taking a step back, Loud City Song feels like an important anomaly in the mainstream indie (yeah, I know) discourse. This sits up quietly but pointedly as a quiet rebuke to records that won’t try to render the depth of the world in a layered and crafted way, those that prefer to just wink, shrug, or laze. While our discussions fragment, dovetail, and spin further away from the center of experience, these songs point to trees, to moments, to cars, a reminder of what’s present and unchanging. As Holter puts it, “This is a true heart/ Listen hard/ These are true words/ Listen hard.”

Through the invention, the rich emotion, and the fierce intelligence underpinning Loud City Song, I found myself unthinkingly and woozily recalling the thrill I had the first time I heard Joni Mitchell as a teenager. I don’t mean that as a simplistic gender-centric comparison, since Holter is avowedly not a confessional songwriter — it’s because Mitchell was (when at her best) the boldest, most innovative, and insightful songwriter of her whole generation by a gap, and Holter is looking as though she may well become that; essentially, someone you can’t help but learn about yourself by listening to, one who necessarily expands the wealth of your perception by pointing out what you didn’t know you were staring a hole through. Diving calculatedly into the maze of reference points that dwell in this record risks making your experience of Holter drier or dustier; this record demands to be experienced first and reasoned later, to be encountered when amid the world it describes, in a city, alone, looking. The most important thing about it is that this is the kind of music that can bring you and the world around you back to full, vivid life, and if music can do something more important than that, I don’t want to know about it.

Links: Julia Holter - Domino

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