A Musical Exegesis of Julia Holter’s Aviary
I, like many other musically minded people with an at least moderate inclination toward aesthetic observation, have a thing for the city at night. Did that sound pretentious? That’s good; it was meant to. Understanding the appeal of art-pop musician Julia Holter’s meandering and frustratingly abstract discography requires one to put on the cap of the aesthete; her music, which shrinks the gap between the profoundly minimalist and the lushly orchestral, was designed for neon-lit voyeurism. To the nighttime people-watchers of the world, Holter offers a distinct brand of aural salvation.
Therefore, the October release of her album Aviary was exciting for me. I’d heard two other Holter albums— 2013’s Loud City Song and 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness—and found that both captured feelings of deep loneliness and sorrowful disaffection with rare concision. The former, Holter’s loose adaptation of the novella/musical Gigi, saw her juxtapose the odd, claustrophobic horror of the cityscape with lilting sax lines a la Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues,” The Blue Nile’s “The Downtown Lights,” or pretty much any grandiose paean to late-night languor and purple-lit lounge brocade you can summon to mind. Hazy, bleary, seen and not seen, lonely and surrounded, the entire listening experience is disheartening, cold, and disturbingly empty for all its orchestration. It’s sort of like living in a particularly cynical Lite-Brite creation. Have You in My Wilderness, meanwhile, takes a completely different approach, masquerading as what exclaim! Critic Cam Lindsay calls “warm, breezy pop music” although concealing a deep longing. It’s more immediate to me than its predecessor, as Holter eschews Loud City Song’s atmospheric, ambient-leaning sensibility for songs that are catchier and even (gasp) pop-oriented. But there’s just as much poignant, bird’s-eye-view storytelling happening here, even if it’s conveyed more through precise lyricism than elaborate soundscapes.
Part of what fascinates about Aviary is that it flies in the face of what Holter’s pop songs had accomplished and instead doubles down on her exploration of the vast and intangible. If, as Pitchfork’s Winston Cook-Wilson writes, Have You in My Wilderness “embraces the specific, rather than the eternal,” Aviary appears fixed on doing exactly the opposite. This isn’t to say, of course, that Holter hasn’t been expertly vague before; there’s really no answering why a sentiment like “he lights his cigarette with nothing” is so emotionally impactful (though it definitely is). But Aviary, which is twice as long as its two predecessors s, has no interest in grounding its sprawling aspirations; instead, it seeks to immerse, to inundate, to elevate.
Though a return to Holter’s rain-slicked sidewalk variety of roomy ambient, I think to read Aviary as retreading the form and style of Loud City Song would be a mistake. First of all, there’s something mobilizing and frenetic underneath the late night soupiness this time; where Loud City Song’s opener, “World,” created its scattered effect through an absence of accoutrements, Aviary‘s “Turn the Light On” immediately plunges the listener into a miasma of sounds before segueing into the more restrained “Whether,” which, like many of Aviary’s tracks, comes across delicate and sparse. Though the midnight malaise Holter’s introduced us to in the past is being revisited here, there’s clearly something more at play—a certain finesse, a certain clear-headedness, a distinctive and incisive creative voice that has been given room to breathe. Her vocal performance is more central, more confident. Her melodic decisions feel studied and exact. She isn’t just making you feel like you’ve wandered into the after-midnight lounge atmosphere of a Roxy Music album cover; she’s deconstructing the very notion of why her music makes you feel that way, employing every conceivable technical flourish to create her desired effect. The heady, cerebral philosophical explorations of Have You in My Wilderness and the nocturnal disaffection of Loud City Song have been synthesized into a work of such breadth as to make those excellent albums look banal.
Let me elaborate; it isn’t just that Aviary is an hour and a half long, or subjects you to long segments of eldritch, chanted-not-sung vocalization, or features, among other instruments, many startling, loudly-mixed bagpipes. It’s that it does all of those things while at the same time exploring the empty beauty of artificial lights on a river and the harrowing, abyssal labyrinth of human emotions undergirding the reasons for that beauty. It takes the aesthetic and turns it into an exploration of psychic discomfort, questioning the notion that a kaleidoscopic reflection of a city grid could be beautiful for its own sake and instead forcing us to ask why. Why do buildings full of people make us so profoundly sad when we meander by them, observing in white light each separate exhibition? Why does The Blue Nile’s famous invocation of “empty streets, empty nights, the downtown lights,” pair so well with their imploring question: “How do I know you feel it? How do I know it’s true?” And most importantly: why are we so obsessively interested in this brand of lonely sadness at all, to the point that we seek it for a kind of perverse pleasure? The point of Aviary, if I might make a sweeping statement about a sweeping album, is to construct something so austere in its artistic perfection as to be able to turn around on itself and subvert its own aesthetic function midway through. Only an artist as technically proficient as Julia Holter could make the moves she does without it seeming a miscalculation; in other words, Holter could recreate the atmosphere of Steely Dan’s Aja, or The Blue Nile’s Hats, and it would sound just as coldly beautiful as any of those three manage to—but she doesn’t. Instead, she loads her album with those aforementioned bagpipe drones and hypnagogic vocal overlays and a hell of a lot of other weird stuff. She’s not just recreating the city-at-night effect that aesthetes have been eating up for years; she’s demonstrating her capability of creating such a project and then subverting those tropes with uncanny, jarring sounds to evoke a unique trapped-under-glass brand of horror.
Perhaps the best way to cap this recursive adulation of Aviary‘s product is to let it speak for itself. That’s not to say “stop reading, go listen to it” (although you really should do that, if you get a chance), but rather to say that Holter’s simple lyrics make a similar claim. Don’t take my word for it; take the words of “I Shall Love 2,” which most concisely communicate the uselessness of language to capture the lonely feeling that Aviary wishes to underscore:
That is all, that is all
There is nothing else
I am in love
What can I do?
Oh, I am in love
What can I do?
That is all, that is all
There is nothing else.
What more can Aviary, or anyone else, convey about the human condition than that?