The music of L.A.-based singer-songwriter Julia Holter is not unlike ornate origami. From a distance it looks simple, even humble, but once you take a close look at it you realise the exact and complex folds that went into making it. Always one for knotty arrangements and esoteric embellishments, her fourth album Have You in My Wilderness continues in that vein.
The difference is that this record feels like the first time Holter is letting us get close to her songs, pick them up, feel them, and even unfold them. First single “Feel You,” opens the record with a fluttering harpsichord and one of Holter’s most up-front melodies. Where before her lyrics were cluttered with references to ancient Greek tragedies and 1950s Hollywood musicals, “Feel You” narrates a rainy day in Mexico City when the song’s narrator is missing someone deeply: “Can I feel you? Are you mythological?”
The fussier arrangements on this record, like the long, dark “Lucette Stranded on the Island” and the lush “Night Song,” while they are by no means bad, throw into sharp relief just how charming the more direct songs are. “How Long” is similar in approach to the musical theatre pretensions of Holter’s 2013 album Loud City Song, but finds her performing in a more earthy, engaging way, dropping down to a robust contralto in a way that is reminiscent of German standards singer Dagmar Krause.
The tumbling jazz drums, wandering bass, sparkling keys, spoken lyrics and ribbons of saxophone on “Vasquez,” speak to Holter’s skill as a composer and arranger, but still maintain an edge of roughness and improvisation. Similarly, “Betsy on the Roof” is arranged largely for piano and voice, and finds Holter navigating its layered harmonics and unexpected chord changes in a loose and searching manner. The sympathetic touch of producer Cole M. Greif-Neill - at once both close and airy - seems to have had a large effect on opening up Holter's music.
Some of the best moments on Have You in My Wilderness come when Holter branches out into genres she has not explored before. “Sea Calls Me Home” features playful whistling accompaniment and a bleating saxophone, making it sound like a cross between blue-eyed soul and an ancient sea shanty. Later on, “Everytime Boots” combines a rock ‘n’ roll jive beat with a typically complex arrangement of vocal harmonies. For the first time, Julia Holter sounds like she’s genuinely having fun.
The gorgeous title track closes the record in a way that sounds completely unlike Julia Holter. In the song’s a capella opening, it resembles a forgotten folk spiritual (with Holter’s voice being very reminiscent of Cowboy Junkies’ Margot Timmins), before bleeding into a string-drenched climax. An impassioned Holter pleads “Tell me why do I feel like running away?” in a truly vulnerable and affecting close to the record.
Have You in My Wilderness may lack the conceptual heft that made Julia Holter’s past albums so beguiling and fascinating, but it expands on her past prowess in other ways. It’s her pop album, but it doesn’t seem as if it’s a conscious move in that direction; simply the next stage in her artistic evolution. It has some weaker moments that can seem tired or worn out, but overall it’s another success for this remarkably unique songwriter.
Have You in My Wilderness is out on CD, vinyl on digital formats on Friday September 25. Julia Holter is performing at Newtown Social Club on Wednesday December 9.