Album review: Julia Holter’s “Aviary” is a modern masterwork
Even after three close listens, Julia Holter’s “Aviary” cannot even come close to being definitively explained from a critical standpoint. It’s challenging, hard to decipher, ambitious and undoubtedly one of the most forward-thinking pieces of art to come out of this decade.
The album’s length alone, clocking in at 89 minutes, gives it an intimidating stature akin to a great classical temple sitting atop a mountain of stairs. Holter’s vision is nothing short of spectacular and the grandiosity of all aspects, musically and lyrically, are stunning.
“Aviary” serves as an important cultural document, revitalizing history and responding to the present in a way unlike anything else in recent memory. Interspersed Latin lyrics, references to frescoes, the Iron Age kingdom of Lydia and medieval instrumentation are just some of the eccentric elements featured throughout its fifteen tracks that orient it in the greater scope of human culture.
Opening with “Turn the Light On,” the album’s overwhelming instrumental density is revealed with full force from the first seconds. A bombastic explosion into an orchestral wall of sound takes place, washing over the listener. Holter’s soaring vocals complement the disorienting, beautiful chaos of the instruments as layer upon layer of sound plays off each other, giving the effect of a symphony playing free jazz.
Each song’s dense instrumentation evokes rich feeling and mental imagery from the listener on its own. The song “Chaitius,” for example, features violin, muted trumpet, cello and marching drums arranged in a medieval-sounding chamber pop tune. The instruments, in conjunction with the haunting echoed lyrics over rich harmonies, sound like a forest soundscape with mysterious animal movement and trees swaying in the wind.
Bagpipe, cello, harp, piano, synthesizer, saxophone, organ and guitar are just some of the other instruments to populate the impressive arrangement of “Aviary.” The commanding presence and rich diversity of these instruments on the album are highly reflective of Holter’s challenging lyrical message.
She treats her words as an equal player in the sonically maximalist world she has created and provides wisps of times, places and memories with either striking precision or frustratingly gorgeous ambiguity. Without a doubt, Holter’s approach to her words is thoroughly influenced by Modernism and similarly strives to offer a sensible response to current disillusionment.
“I Shall Love 2” deals with the recurring theme of allowing oneself to be open and receptive to genuine experience even in the face of uncertainty. Her triumphant manifesto to accept the course of her life is powerfully conveyed in the repeated lyric “I shall love.”
Holter grapples with the persistence of memory, faltering connections and human urges, emotions, desires, insecurities and struggles in a deeply poetic way. “Underneath the Moon” captures the excitement and jubilation felt through existing in an uninhibited place in nature. This glee turns to existentialism, however, as she ponders larger questions such as, “How do I know who to trust? / Where do I start? / I see no beginning/ No middle/ No end.”
Standing out as the album’s greatest achievement, “Words I Heard” is a desperate cry for the age, passionately trying to make sense of the chaotic and declining state of the greater world. In a goosebump-inducing harmony, Holter stunningly proclaims “Save, save our souls,” becoming the beacon of light in the darkness.
The title “Aviary,” referencing a large enclosure for holding birds, is a perfect encapsulation of Holter’s message. She offers an overhead, soaring perspective of the marvels of the world but reminds that being caged is still limiting. She calls attention to the walls, which often seem to be closing in, but offers the hope that there is always room to spread one’s wings and live life fully.
In the seemingly creatively deficient musical climate of today, populated by such figures as Sheck Wes and Post Malone, Julia Holter’s “Aviary” rises as a testament to the continued presence of high art and musical purity outside of the mainstream. The scope, beauty and importance of this work warrant it the status of modern masterpiece.