Sometimes listening to Julia Holter is like watching a film of a dream: gauzy, beautiful, the set immaculately dressed and the light in the golden hour haloing the characters’ emotional highs and lows. At other times, her music is like dreaming of a film, something half-remembered or only eerily discernible, as if you’re falling asleep in front of the TV as snatches of a classic romance flit around amid your own concerns and passions. Her style is rooted in her classical training, composition degree, and highbrow references, but has always been generous with its visceral delights.
While still dreamlike, Have You in My Wilderness, Holter’s fourth album, is something clearly felt — the ocean spray on the warm breeze, the sun baking exposed limbs, a hand glancing across your skin before drifting away. Her first three albums each felt thematically tied together in smart, artful packages based on preexisting literature and film: Tragedy ran on Euripedes, Ekstasis worked with modern poetry, and Loud City Song rotated around 1958 romantic musical Gigi. The choice of personal pronoun in this album’s title feels designed, as the songs no longer hinge on an external source. Her previous work didn’t necessarily require any outside reading to unlock its pleasures, but Have You in My Wilderness cuts extraordinarily quickly to the core.
That immediacy doesn’t mean that Holter sings in absolutes or has left behind her poetic ambitions. Rather, the dreams, passions, and uncertainties are drawn in sensory experience and backed by breathing, vibrant warmth. Opener “Feel You” examines the seeming oxymoron of that sumptuous gray area beautifully. She grounds the song in the rainy days of Mexico City, but then fills that physical space with questions (“Can I feel you? Are you mythological?”) and charming confusion (“When the cab pulled up, I laughed/ I forgot where I was going”). The harpsichord, swooning strings, and staccato percussion shift and swell like the tide as Holter walks along the beach and takes in the dizzying sights.
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Though not always concretely named, there’s something coastal and aquatic about Holter’s Wilderness throughout. Her vocals are frequently poured through a layer of thin reverb and the instrumentation pulses like waves. The songs’ fusion of classical instrumentation and jazz flourishes, of smoke and romance, of sophistication and warmth makes them feel like a set of postcards from the Mediterranean with stories of love and loss scribbled across the back.
Producer Cole M. Greif-Neill does Holter a big favor in spotlighting her vocals; her sweet, evocative tones were always a highlight, but here her lyrics ring with a special clarity, making their tender intimacies that much more powerful. At times her tales work without concrete details, but the blanks she leaves behind aren’t blanks to her, and their feelings are conveyed even if their specific words aren’t. “I can’t swim/ Its lucidity/ So clear,” she repeats as a chorus to the majestic “Sea Calls Me Home”, a squalling saxophone and marching beat pushing her forward. Holter never explicitly defines what the sea or swimming means to her, but their implications are felt: The ocean is massive, uncompromising, and open. She sees it stretch out, is called to it, and yet, despite an inability to swim, sings of its clarity with a certain smile on her face.
The ability or inability to cross water seems tied symbolically to forming relationships, to overcoming the struggles of the self and connecting with others. “And he said I will swim to you,” Holter sings on “Silhouette” before describing a relationship that runs on faith of return despite being beset by distance. “Oh she’s been marooned/ Can anybody help her?” she calls out on “Lucette Stranded on the Island”, also describing a menacing man using a billhook to catch her by the neck. When declaring love on the closing title track, the water itself becomes home: “Lady of gold, you would fit beautiful in my wilderness/ In your waters I’ve dropped anchor.” But when trouble strikes, she finds it stuck on solid ground. “Tell me, why do I feel you running away?” she asks repeatedly as the album closes.
Whether building off of torch songs (“Betsy on the Roof”), galloping country (“Everytime Boots”), or jazz fusion (“Vasquez”), Holter takes on each style’s trappings (a smoky tone, a smirk, a clipped syllable) to dive into unique, personal depths. She doesn’t convey specific messages or exhaustively detail narratives, but to listen to each song on Have You in My Wilderness is to inhabit a feeling in all of its pain and all of its glory.
Essential Tracks: “Feel You”, “Sea Calls Me Home”, and “Silhouette”