Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s last record, was a collection of the baroque-pop and ambient electronic music that Holter had been making up to that point. Have You In My Wilderness attempts to dismantle the finality Loud City Song had about it by paring Holter’s music back down to the baroque-pop roots. Orchestra is deployed frequently and much of the time takes the entire brunt of the instrumentation, such as on ‘How Long?’. Other times, Holter uses gentle swathes of the ambient sounds that she has previously used, but then coats it in flutes, pianos, horns, strings, etc. The piano, especially, plays a large part in the album, providing emotional intimacy on tracks like ‘Betsy On The Roof’, one of the more ambiguous but lovely songs Holter has ever recorded. ‘Intimacy’ is an important word to stress on Have You In My Wildnerness; the album is a lot closer and less obstructed by experimentalism compared to Holter’s back catalogue. It’s the clearest portrait of Holter so far.
Don’t think that Holter has completely lost the experimentalism. ‘Vasquez’ is a bit like the jazzy moments of Radiohead’s Amnesiac with its spoken word delivery and complex jazz drums. Think ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’ with more orchestration. Holter begins with ‘Let me tell you about faces I see’. It has a childlike Moonrise Kingdom quality to it, where children and adults run away to the beaches and there’s a glazed fuzziness over everything. Holter’s imagery that she makes echoes themes of running away, heartbreak, people turning from ghost to human and back again, coated in gorgeous orchestration and vocals. Holter’s voice, while it has never been amazing, works perfectly on the multi-layered ‘Vasquez’ when she pairs it with rising instrumentation to parallel her voice and lyrics. Similar crescendos are met on ‘Silhouette’, which begins as a quirky mid-tempo song with an elastic bassline and Holter providing extra backing vocals in the background chirping away. In the latter half of the song sharp violins take the brunt of instrumentation with Holter’s ghostly vocals building and building. It almost becomes unintelligible what Holter is singing, but then the violins are cut off and the song ends almost too quickly.
Some songs do the exact opposite and don’t know when to end. ‘Lucette Stranded On The Island’ begins well enough and when the final push begins, it goes smoothly, but then it goes on for another three minutes with little alterations to mix up the structure. Often the pinnacle of Holter’s songs are in the crescendo, but then the crescendo echoes itself for too long and any emotional impact created in the first place is simply repeated. When the songs become indulgent in wailing backing vocals and too much instrumentation, the intimacy is clouded by fuzzy extras which don’t need to be there.
When it is left to Holter, a piano and some straining orchestration fighting with Holter to rise to the top, the songs become immensely powerful and emotional. ‘Betsy On The Roof’ does it and so does ‘Have You In My Wildnerness’. Holter’s voice is so close it almost seems to be coming from next to you and every word is delicately sang. The backing vocals here don’t step on any toes, they murmur quietly in the background as Holter sings ‘Tell me, why do I feel you running away?’ with increasing intensity as the string section swings into position, almost sounding like it is sobbing itself. ‘Betsy On The Roof’, its closest companion, revels in purposeful vagueness as the piano keys are pounded with every ‘Oh she said’.
‘Everytime Boots’ is the closest thing the album comes to a fast-pace song. It still packs the same orchestral flourish that almost every other song does, but it changes from quickness to a slow section so fast that it doesn’t know what it is. Holter wants to run away again, but something holds her back. The song sticks out like a sore thumb, beginning like an iTunes advert and ending like a blockbuster film soundtrack climax. It’s also one of the only moments where Have You In My Wilderness’ intimacy is broken for all-out jazz hands. If anything, it’s just a funny song to hear in comparison to the rest of the record in songs like ‘How Long?’. ‘How Long?’ ditches the piano entirely for orchestral bombast. The orchestra stops for a second, just to let the song build up again from the ashes with Holter repeating ‘All of the people run from the horizon’.
Have You In My Wilderness is tantalisingly close to what Holter is aiming for on the record. Her lyrics pass intact and the instrumentation is the best-suited that she’s had in her career. It has the baroque-pop influences more clearly: Kate Bush is probably quite close to what Holter was trying to achieve and she almost does it. However, odd moments like ‘Vasquez’ and ‘Everytime Boots’ suggest that Holter isn’t quite ready to leave the experimentalism that she begun with. In truth, it would be a loss to see Holter lose her alternative streak entirely as it adds a dash of quirkiness to songs like ‘Vasquez’. Equally, her full-on baroque-pop and piano ballads are the stuff of dreams. So where it leaves Julia Holter is a middling record that can’t just get it right and has too many holes to keep up consistency. When she does land a hit on good songs like ‘Silhouette’ or ‘Have You In My Wildnerness’, Holter can truly deliver.
Funnel Recommends: Silhouette / Betsy On The Roof / Have You In My Wildnerness