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New Music: Julia Holter

By Jason Herring, November 22 2018 —

Julia Holter is this decade’s greatest artist. Though the California art-pop songwriter had already released four spectacular records since 2010, it’s her new album, Aviary, that cements her as a visionary artist hell-bent on shattering musical convention in the most beautiful manner conceivable.

Aviary is tough to classify. At over an hour and a half, it’s a lot of things, including jazz, ambient, free improvisation and baroque pop. But it’s never conventional — even the album’s poppier moments serve as experiments of sound and structure.  

The album begins with “Turn the Light On,” a musical crash of waves and the screech of birds set free. Here, and periodically throughout Aviary, Holter creates a cacophony that’s almost overwhelming. Her voice emerges above the chaos, as if gasping for air. Violins flutter with an avian trajectory. It’s at once horrifying and thrilling and endlessly captivating.

Consistently through Aviary, there are sounds I’ve never heard before, and the more time spent with the album, the more of these noises I discover. I can’t turn the volume on my speakers loud enough to make those sounds encompass me fully.

And yet, through an album filled with noise and uncertainty, its shining moment comes in “I Shall Love 2,” the undeniable heart of Aviary. Holter builds the track on a sparse hi-hat beat with only a twittered whistle interspersed as melodic backing, but the conviction of Holter’s vocal performance quickly explodes into one of the year’s most affecting tracks.

It’s tough to itemize the beauty of an album as sprawling and nuanced as Aviary. In the month since its release, each listen has revealed to me new moments of jaw-dropping brilliance, and I don’t expect that to stop anytime soon. This is Holter’s magnum opus and, for me, a source of boundless joy.

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