It’s tempting to conclude that, in the era of streaming, the album is merely a mechanism to garner extra plays on Spotify. But records like Julia Holter’s Aviary demonstrate that the long player is still the prestige format.
Julia Holter was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, although her family moved to Los Angeles when she was young. Aviary is her fifth studio album, and her work is on the fringes of popular music, experimental and pushing into classical territory. While her previous album, 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness, was her most accessible, edging towards more standard indie fare, Aviary is an extremely challenging album, ninety minutes of avant-garde classical pop.
Aviary dispenses with traditional rock instrumentation, and is instead centred on Holter’s piano, synthesizers, and voice. Holter’s accompanied by fluid double bass and orchestral instruments. The music’s often unplanned, giving Aviary an exploratory feel, and Holter’s cited Alice Coltrane as a key influence for the record. Even the album’s first single and easiest entry point, ‘I Shall Love 2’, is far from straightforward, eschewing hooks for shimmering textures and layered vocals.
Holter’s lyrics are often influenced by books- her music often draws on a variety of literary sources. Among the quoted material for Aviary are Occitan folk songs, Sappho, Dante, Alexander Pushkin, and novelist Etel Adnan. Holter described her writing process in an interview with Under The Radar:
There’s a song on the record called ‘Colligere’ which apparently means like “to collect / gather,” and for a long time I’ve thought about that word as a way to describe my writing process. A lot of times I feel like I’m gathering layers of different things, both with sounds and with words, and both my own sounds and words and others’ found sounds and words. And, especially with words, since it’s language and thus coming from a communication-based form (as opposed to sound, which I find much easier to spontaneously create/improvise with without imposed thought), I find it more fun to gather other texts that are not my own, to build a collection of voices and contribute to the sort of endless process of translation that art is.Julia Holter, interviewed in Under The Radar
Aviary has the potential to fall apart under its own weight, but it works because of its intrinsic beauty – Holter’s voice and piano work are pretty, and anchor what can at times be a challenging listen. Holter’s stated that Aviary is not necessarily designed to be listened to in one sitting – I’ve found that it’s fine to dip in and let its beauty wash over you for a few songs at a time.
Aviary is a brave, bold record – after a dozen listens I feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface. It’s not an easy album to digest, but Aviary may well be the record that Holter is remembered for.
PS. RIP to Scott Walker – it’s fitting to write about this daring, idiosyncratic record today.