Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Julia Holter has referred to the intimate and fascinating Have You In My Wilderness, her fourth album proper, as her ‘country’ album, but rather than pedal steels and cowboy chords, this seems to speak to the sense of a retreat from the metropolitan fever-dream of 2013’s Loud City Song.
While there isn’t a central theme that’s perhaps as clear as that of the preceding record (based around both Colette’s novella Gigi and the 1958 musical adaptation) or of Tragedy (inspired by Euripides’ Hippolytus), the titular wilderness runs through the 10 songs here, Loud City Song’s chattering clubs and swinging rhythms replaced by parks and plains, jagged rocks and rolling seas.
Although Holter has referred to the lyrics as streams of consciousness, the songs here are peopled with a variety of characters, and it’s to open spaces that they find themselves exposed time and again, whether as willing escapees (“I’ll take my time here, there’s no reason to rush” – Everytime Boots), or, on the extraordinary Lucette Stranded On The Island – also taken from the writings of Colette – dumped by a lover “sharp and high on the Balearic promontory”.
Sonically, too, there’s a natural, open feeling to the whole collection to which Holter seems to refer in the rhapsodic refrain to Sea Calls Me Home (“I can’t swim, it’s lucidity, so clear”), also featuring a marvellously skronking Canterbury sound saxophone solo. It’s one of the album’s most purely pleasurable moments, along with the skipping harpsichord and lush, sighing orchestration of Feel You, and the playful, up-tempo honky-tonk of Everytime Boots.
Although there are subtle electronics – the final minutes of Vasquez that almost evoke Air’s Moon Safari – and hints of Holter’s early musique concrète experimentation colouring the edges, an organic trio sound prevails, keyboards accompanied by skittering, febrile percussion and woody upright bass that feel their way around, as if forever a step behind the plunging, soaring melodies.
There are some stunning moments among the grander arrangements, too – the circular, climbing pattern in the latter half of Betsy On The Roof, for instance, gradually swallowed by layers of strings, cascading, pattering prepared piano sounds and manipulated, angelic choruses. And on Lucette…, you’re on the island with the unfortunate heroine, the cerulean wash of voices and strings gradually broken by vocals mimicking cawing birds and cymbals that crash like waves against the rocks.
Holter’s voice is clearer and stronger than on her earlier albums, foregrounded in a conscious decision by her and Ariel Pink associate Cole Marsden Greif-Neill, producing here, that pays off, revealing it to be a versatile instrument. On How Long? she’s Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles as played by Nico, wanting to know “the proper way to ask for a cigarette”, while on the gorgeous title track, closing the album, her voice is multi-tracked, the sweet lead line over echo-drenched, soulful backing vocals of the kind that ran through her twilit version of Barbara Lewis’ classic Hello Stranger.
This may well be Holter’s most accessible album to date, but it’s this very approachability that renders it all the more intriguing, drawing you in with open arms. Stately and serene, it’s a wilderness that begs to be inhabited for some time, a country you’ll be reluctant to leave.