With last year’s startling Ekstasis, Julia Holter made a pocket-world novel. You’ve probably read one as a kid, be it The Secret Garden or The Chronicles of Narnia, the kind of stories that make up more story, finding fantasy in a past that seems surreal. Ekstasis is like walking through a garden to find the place nobody else can go, or shaking off the creaky woodwork of a house for snow at the end of a wardrobe. If Holter finds the majority of bedroom pop being made today lazy, it’s because she discovered a kingdom among her four walls; on “Marienbad”, she brought together plucked violin notes, harp playing so remote it sounded like a memory, and keyboards playing to the side, as if you were waking up to find a new world at the end of your bed. If you jumped in, Ekstasis began.
Holter is half a traditionalist, half a futurist, treating her baroque setting with ambient keyboard music, assuming a new world has remnants of an ancient one. Her fantasies run in circles, or at least that felt like the intention of Ekstasis: it made no compromises with the modern world, instead meshing together past and future. So it’s easy to see Loud City Song, her newest album, as a surprising thematic shift from this inventive other-world writing. Its setting is the bustling city of present day Los Angeles and its premise as good as “Why are we interested in Kim Kardashian?”. In a wonderful interview with FACT Magazine, Holter claimed the album grew from “Maxim’s” — a song about her infatuation with Gigi — into a modern parable about the disasters of a crowded population that perpetuates its problems onto celebrities. It’s an anxious album as a result, its melodious nature folding seamlessly into dissonance, and Holter dichotomising the reality of personhoods with the fantasies invented for them. Are we interested in Kim Kardashian, or are we interested in watching her?
Holter presents that question on “Maxim’s”, with a sense of genuine incredulity: “Tonight the birds are watching me / do they have more important things to do?” It’s a reminder that celebrity gazing is a disturbing, almost surreal prospect when you apply it — the idea you could walk into a room and everyone would look up at you, invoking a sudden, mutual break in the social contract. With her jumping off point as Gigi or the updated Kardashian version, Holter’s scenes are characterized by the distress of her subjects and their attempts to obscure themselves. “World” is a fragmented song that ascends painstakingly, its ominous instrumental flourishes — ranging from piano to imitations with brass instruments and cello — brought in only momentarily, as a sound one can’t quite trace or dispel. As the tension mounts, Holter’s character becomes more and more unsettled, covering her face so the city can’t see her, but feeling trapped in her own skin when alone in her apartment.
Loud City Song is predicated on an obsession with collective scapegoating, but the city is a place in which anyone can feel like the epicenter. This world is less insular than Holter’s previous work, being lived in and impressed upon by thousands upon thousands, rather than an adventure for one. It’s an attempt to live with others when only your mind is real company, moving from hectic, bustling interactions to watching the empty streets from your window. Many of these songs are amorphous, and all are fraught with a sense of breathless anxiety; “Maxim’s II” brittles with the tension of its build, Holter trading segments in which she whispers over clamoring percussion for moments of unsettling tranquil. It becomes calmed, but only storm-calmed, the song eventually erupting into a noxious jazz outro. The uncertain “In The Green Wild” is navigated with a slick double-bass riff, assuring a clear path through the streets, but Holter’s jesting character is hurried, her tongue-twisting “Woah”s a nifty earworm, but also a dizzying swirl. The song’s dynamic shift into a miasmic outro is akin to Loud City Song as a whole, an album in which characters face abrupt scene changes.
The title Holter gave Loud City Song is deceptive. It doesn’t speak to the album’s volume, necessarily, nor that it was recorded to blast your ears, noise-rock style. It’s more about the clatter on the streets, and loud in a less overt way, the music invoking chaos in your head and delivering the L.A. anxiety to you. That’s how “Maxim’s II” feels, for sure — those ferocious last minutes manipulate your headspace — but even the more ambient compositions are possessed by a strained mind. On Ekstasis they carried a sense of meditation, like Holter was suspending her adventures in the air (time going by slower in the pocket-world than it does in reality), but here their use is darkening. “Hello Stranger”, a Barbara Lewis song, is converted into a six-minute drone complemented with cello and occasional comment from Holter, who impresses upon the song its sense of the dreadfully finite: “Seems like a mighty long time.” Loud City Song doesn’t lose its trepidation when its characters are left to their own devices — if anything they become terrified by what’s within them, scared of being alone, together. “He’s Running Through My Eyes” is a chillingly sparse song with a piano performance that brightens and then recedes, its eponymous refrain feeding hauntingly back to “World” and Holter’s fear of constant connection: “How can I escape you?”
Holter’s conclusion about her city — that everyone becomes their own celebrity, shirking from the street in case they get watched and start hyperventilating — reminds me of another album released this year, Jenny Hval’s sex-tape obsessed Innocence Is Kinky. Hval’s musical experimentation is more angular, and her attempts to understand the celebrity fixation are made by committing to it. That explains why the album’s opening line is so candid: “That night, I watched people fucking on my computer.” It’s a line that finds nothing abnormal about this desire to watch, and even demythologizes it a little. Contrasting these albums is fascinating to me because of their approach to that “Why does everyone care” quandary: Loud City Song makes itself the subject, whereas Innocence Is Kinky reflects on it. Hval shows what it is to be in control of someone in the public eye, to dominate proceedings by simply watching. Holter’s record, on the other hand, feels intruded upon, looked at, and scared of something ultimately invisible. It’s an impressive record to listen to — the compositions are even more beautiful than Ekstasis, even though they’re often more fragmented — but it’s also a frightening depiction of what it feels like to have a whole population making you up in its head.