Julia Holter’s “Aviary” is one of the most grandiose and densely packed pop albums in recent memory, with the instrumental power of a full orchestra lending to its sprawling soundscapes. Holter rejects any and all conceivable pop cliches on this album, choosing instead to focus on loosely structured compositions featuring richly layered instrumentations and emphasizing harmony rather than melody. It is undoubtedly a challenging listen, but also a rewarding one. There’s an astonishing amount of detail wrapped into each song, but Holter never loses focus. Every note feels like it was painstakingly labored over as a result.
Drawing influence from legendary female artists like Joni Mitchell and Cocteau Twins, Holter broke into the music scene in 2011 with her atmospheric but inconsistent debut album “Tragedy,” which she followed with the equally beautiful but unfocused “Ekstasis” in 2012. There was no doubt that Holter had a lot of potential as a songwriter, but her writing needed refinement. She fully capitalized on this potential when she returned with 2013’s “Loud City Song,” which featured much more theatrical production and songs that were designed to embody all the aspects of city life. Holter’s writing continued to grow on the lavish, catchy and dreamy “Have You In My Wilderness,” which stood strong as one of my favorite albums of 2015.
Singles “I Shall Love 2” and “Words I Heard,” as well as Holter’s revelation that the album would be nearly 90 minutes in length, suggested that “Aviary” would be an entirely different experience. Indeed, the catchy hooks and bright sound that made “Have You In My Wilderness” so enjoyable are gone, replaced by oddly-structured melodies that follow the conventions of chamber music more than pop. There’s a strangely potent sadness prevalent throughout a majority of the songs. Even though Holter mostly stays in her upper register (which suits her best), her vocals are so evocative that they still carry a lot of emotional weight.
Save some occasional reverb, there’s no production trickery to be found here. Any studio alterations would be counter-intuitive to the raw, natural aesthetic of “Aviary.” The timbres of the instruments on this album are amazing, from “Les Jeux to You”’s robust piano to the trumpets that hang in the background of “Colligere”’s intro. The acoustic bass featured throughout the album sounds phenomenal as well, producing an organic sound that contributes to the album’s theme of nature. Bagpipes, timpanis, chimes and organs appear as well, amounting to one of the most dynamic orchestral palettes in modern music.
There really are no low points in the album’s 89-minute run time, but some passages do feel long-winded and unnecessary. The most significant example of this is the fifth track, “Everyday Is an Emergency.” The four-minute long bagpipe solo is pretty patience-testing, especially given how sour some of the notes are. It isn’t the only time Holter toys with elements of experimental music on the album, but it is one of the less successful attempts. A better example would be the track “Chaitius,” whose horn-heavy intro fades into a remarkably strange vocal harmony. Other highlights include the surprisingly upbeat “Les Jeux to You” and the beautiful piano ballad “In Gardens’ Muteness.” “I Shall Love 2” seemingly crescendos into infinity, with disembodied voices bouncing the refrain “I shall love” off of each other — until it abruptly ends and the next track starts. It is quite possibly the most memorable part of the entire project, which made the song a great choice for the album’s lead single.
Many of the songs are as abstract lyrically as they are instrumentally. Like other songs by Holter a lot of the lyrics focus heavily on nature and love, but there isn’t much in the way of storytelling, as is typically the case with singer/songwriter music. The lyrics certainly have poetic elements, but are often too arcane to communicate any sort of message or meaning.
Despite its intimidating length and prominent eccentricities, “Aviary” is an impressive piece to behold, and one that deserves to be consumed in its entirety. Even after several listens, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this album. It’s an incredibly dense and moving work that absolutely demands repeat listens to uncover all of its idiosyncrasies. Holter continues to showcase an incredible talent for songwriting. I hope her next album is as beautiful and bizarre as this one.