Album Review: Julia Holter—“Have You In My Wilderness”

By James Li

Julia Holter makes music that’s often described as “avant-pop,” but with every album of hers, she edges closer to the “pop” end of that spectrum. The Los Angeles songwriter is classically trained and raised on pop music, but doesn’t stick to the formalities of either side. Her music draws from jazz, chamber music, and musique concrète, and her literary lyrics are inspired by the works of Euripides, Colette, Frank O’Hara, and Virginia Woolf. Despite all this, Holter’s music is playful, not pretentious, and her latest album, Have You in My Wilderness, is her warmest and most accessible yet.

On Have You in My Wilderness, Holter moves away from the bedroom to the studio (her first two albums were home recordings), and makes a collection of ballads rather than a concept album. But Have You in My Wilderness is no less ambitious for it. With a full band backing her, Holter paints in strings, keys, and horns. On the opening track “Feel You”, Holter pays homage to her West Coast roots – she sings about running away from the sun to rainy Mexico City – by shrouding the track in Beach Boys-esque harpsichord.

Album art for Have You in My Wilderness

Album art for Have You in My Wilderness

Other tracks go in unexpected directions. Some tracks, like “Sea Calls Me Home” and “Betsy on the Roof” start off as understated piano ballads but unravel when Holter piles on cacophonous horns and strings. “Everytime Boots” is Holter’s avant take on a honky-tonk country song. On the slow-burning centerpiece “Vasquez”, Holter recites her lyrics a la Laurie Anderson against an ambient jazz-rock backdrop.

Holter sings, speaks, and whispers on Have You in My Wilderness, but no matter what she does, she’s asserting herself as a vocalist more than ever. Her compositions might be hazy and dreamlike, but her words are as clear as day. Although Have You in My Wilderness isn’t a concept album like her previous albums (Tragedy is based on Euripides’ Hippolytus and Loud City Song is based on Colette’s Gigi), Holter is still a storyteller: “Lucette Stranded on the Island” is inspired by a character in Colette’s Chance Acquaintances, who gets stranded on the Balearic Islands, and “Vasquez” takes its name from the 19th century Californian outlaw Tiburico Vasquez.

That’s not to say that Have You in My Wilderness is a scattered mess of literary and historical references. Holter has a strong sense of narrative – she’s more likely to work with other people’s stories than to sing about her personal experiences. On songs like “Feel You”, she sings from a male and a female perspective. And distance and detachedness seem to be recurring themes on the album. “Can I feel you?” she asks on “Feel You”, “Are you mythological?” And on the closing title track, Holter asks “why do I feel you running away?” But Have You in My Wilderness isn’t something to run away from, it’s a musical and lyrical world well worth diving into. (Domino)

Listen: “Feel You”

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