With September’s Have You In My Wilderness, former California Institute of the Arts student Julia Holter crafted what was perhaps her most straightforward work to date. No less painterly in composition than Loud City Song’s heady evocation of fin de siècle Parisian clubland or the rarefied swoon of Ekstasis, but with a disarming simplicity and sense of space, Holter’s fourth album proper was one of the highlights of the year so far and the third of an astonishing trio.
But how best to translate their subtleties to a nervily talkative but devoted Islington crowd, crammed into the grand Assembly Hall? Holter has a suggestion. “Just close your eyes and imagine there’s… like… a bunch of brass instruments chasing after you,” she deadpans before Loud City Song’s driving Horns Surrounding Me, in one of several droll cues; “we’re going to share this frightening experience together”.
Holter’s voice is as extraordinary tonight as it is on record, as she deftly (and with scant regard for conventional metre) wraps her sinuous verses around intricate and seemingly studio-bound material. She’s aided in this by her superb band, Devin Hoff wrapping his fingers around the neck of his electric double bass, nimbly plucking the precise part that runs through buoyant opener Silhouette, while Corey Fogel scatters drums around the words, Julia’s voice seemingly the only steady craft on this rolling sea. It’s a sharp contrast to the jittery sprechgesang of In The Green Wild, which follows; here, Holter’s lost in a reverie, running her fingers through her hair, while the excellent Dina Maccabee – on viola and laptop – adds her echoing layers from stage left.
Aside from an early Marienbad – from Ekstasis, its Promethean themes given a lengthy explicatory introduction – and the lush pop of This Is A True Heart, the remainder of the set draws almost entirely on Have You In My Wilderness, and barely puts a foot wrong. How Long and Lucette Stranded On The Island see Holter lost in embodying their literary heroines, the latter followed by another humorous digression. “I always like to follow a song about being murdered on an island,” referring to Colette’s unfortunate Lucette, “with a song that’s optimistic,” she says, introducing a steadier, more measured take on the harpsichord-led Feel You; “optimistic about being late for everything and being a failure”.
The jaunty Everytime Boots, meanwhile, is described as “about not understanding the need to conquer things like land, or people… or… sandwiches,” Holter explaining that the last of these is her “default noun when I can’t think of other things”. It’s not clear whether these interjections are meant to be drawing attention away from the songs’ often erudite impulses, a self-effacing guard that Holter puts up. She needn’t. When she introduces the encore, the steady ascent of Betsy On The Roof – explaining that she last played it in London alone in St. Pancras clock tower – she thanks us, bashfully adding that not only did she never think she’d do that, but also never thought she’d sing in front of people at all; the crowd reacts more warmly to this than any whimsical non sequitur.
After a final, stand-out Sea Calls Me Home, whistling intact but the Soft Machine-esque saxophone solo replaced by droning John Cale-like viola, Holter leaves the stage and we’re ushered out into the wilderness of Upper Street. Having shared this enlightening experience together, we’re more convinced than ever of this remarkable artist’s talents.