The Lowdown: After spending the better part of a decade redefining Avant-pop, Julia Holter has composed her most immersive record yet. A 90-minute sprawling epic that draws inspiration from Blade Runner, Medieval French folk songs, contemporary Lebanese-American poetry, and Dante’s Inferno, Aviary is a dreamlike kaleidoscope filled with wonder and surprise. Holter creates an all-consuming experience where drifting ambiance is placed next to chaotic clanging noise without the two clashing. Lush and experiential, intense feeling is the foreground of the album, a series of shifting moods that swirl and coalesce into a rich tapestry.
The Good: Weaving around the confines of traditional structure, Holter has crafted the most stunning compositions of her entire career. Whether it’s the waves of ambient sound that slowly wash over “Another Dream”, the dizzying jaunt of “Underneath the Moon”, or the hyper-frenetic energy on “Les Jeaux to You”, Holter has never been this assured in her willingness to experiment. Just on “Every Day Is an Emergency”, she opens with four minutes of harsh, shrieking tones that disorientate and disturb before pulling back into a haunting melody, sung in a whisper, that feels like a fever dream. Alongside this is the forceful intonations of opener “Turn the Light On”, where Holter’s staggering voice wails out, a live recording that immediately overpowers. Even the juxtaposition of the two versions of “I Shall Love”, sequenced in backwards order, one a celebratory bombastic stomp, the other a deep-grooving head rush, shows the myriad of styles that Holter brings together throughout the record.
The Bad: An hour and a half album can be daunting on its own, especially so when it’s one as densely packed with ambitious experiments like this. After making a more traditional pop record with 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness, Holter made a conscious decision to work outside of form in the styles she loved, describing the result as a “playful, cathartic record.” While it may be playful in the sense that it exists outside of normal conventions, there is little that is light or breezy about Aviary, a demanding, uncompromising work. The album exists fully on its own terms, and there are stretches of drift that can feel listless.
The Verdict: Aviary benefits from its overlong sprawl, a testament to the art of slowing down and getting lost in a challenging album that has been forgotten in the age of streaming where new releases inundate with their frequency. While some edits could have crafted a more concise record, this grand, indulgent piece finds Holter at the height of her ability. Even the quiet periods are always entrancing, like the soft wistfulness of “In Garden’s Muteness”. The poetry, ancient languages, and literary references may be heady but never are foreboding. No syllabus is required to feel the swooning rush of her melodies or the cathartic cacophony that envelop you. Aviary demands attention, and as a captivating journey that overwhelms the senses, it fully deserves it.
Essential Tracks: “Turn the Light On”, “Every Day Is an Emergency”, “I Shall Love 2”, and “Les Jeaux to You”