The UK has proved to be a happy place for Julia Holter over recent months. She’s played to captivated crowds across the country, found herself equally at home on both BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music and saw her fourth album Have You In My Wilderness appear prominently in end of year album lists.
It’s not surprising therefore that she chose to return so soon to further capitalise on this run of success. Despite moving in more pop-oriented directions on her latest album, she’s still able to boast avant garde/experimental credentials, and tonight’s show at Oval Space was to see her reflect both sides of her musical personality.
The early stages draw heavily from 2014’s Loud City Song. City Appearing provides a suitably artful opening statement and the widescreen projections of Horns Surrounding Me recall the much missed Broadcast. In The Green Wild illustrates the way in which she’s progressed in the last year. The moments of archness and coldness along with some of the minor affectations found within the track possibly indicate why the album wasn’t welcomed quite as warmly as Have You In My Wilderness.
It is her new songs that make the most striking impression however. Live, the spatial undulations of Silhouette grow and diverge into something grander than on record, a trait shared by several tracks tonight. Lucette Stranded On The Island, a standout track on the album, remains so live despite some technical issues in the vocal mix. Holter attempts to expunge some of its mythical, otherworldly appeal by declaring it to be simply about “going to the store” (its origins are in reality more interesting, being based on a character from a novel who becomes stranded on and ultimately dies alone on a remote island). It reveals the multiple states of consciousness seemingly at play within Holter’s music, the majestic slow unveiling of the song sounding as if it has been created by a series of delicate brushstrokes rather than something as real-world as actual musical instruments (this tour sees Holter on keyboards backed by a band playing double bass, viola and drums).
The darker, almost gothic undertones to her voice and vividness of the strings in How Long? once again bring to mind the balance she strikes between art and pop (ultimately being weighted in favour of the latter here). The vast transparency of Betsey On The Roof meanwhile sounds as sumptuous and quasi-symphonic as ever (especially when it breaks free at the end, transformed into something far more imposing). Vasquez remains arguably the most interesting moment on Have You In My Wilderness and is undoubtedly the most covert and mirage-like moment in the set tonight. The thinly dispersed percussion make it sound like an elegantly swooping bird formation committed to music. Moments like this also brings to light a (possibly slightly unfair) negative in the contrast between the certainty and conviction of her music and the slightly awkward and unconvincing nature of her stage talk.
She plays Goddess Eyes and So Lillies from debut album Tragedy, introducing the former as “a song I wrote when I was a teenager”. It may not have the vocodered vocals tonight but still sounds simultaneously fresh and of a different time. The latter sounds compellingly dark and mechanical, a balancing weight to the rest of the set. She plays a version of Dionne Warwick’s Don’t Make Me Over before finishing with Sea Calls Me Home. It’s the most overtly pop she’s been, with the line “it’s lucidity, so clear” appearing almost self-referential given the expanded, celestial sound that she has mastered. Shows like this show her to be in a position many artists would envy – able to explore or combine different approaches and styles knowing she has a steadily increasing group of fans and critics eager to hear the results.