A couple of weeks ago on a hot, sunny day in Oslo — a modest, modern city of 600,000 souls and, on that particular day, myself — I woke up feeling restless and confused. This had been an ongoing theme recently. The night before had been foolish and fun, I had been drinking undignified amounts of whiskey with friends I didn’t know so well in a clichéd and effective attempt to escape my particular brand of blues. It seemed only natural that the next day I would turn around, repent, and fully indulge my miseries.
Out on the quaint streets of Oslo, “World,” the opening track of Julia Holter’s absorbing new album Loud City Song flowed from my generic, white headphones, blocking out the sound of trams, taxis, strollers and other rowdy vehicles. At this point I did not yet know that it would take me weeks to even get past that song.
To say “World” feels like a world unto itself feels both appropriate and cheapening. It’s an incredibly bold piece of music to open a record with. It’s an incredibly bold piece of music. Perhaps the best song these ears will hear all year. I couldn’t move on. I had to hear it again. I had to be in it again.
No doubt, one could nerd away and say that “World” sounds like it could’ve been a long-lost Wendy Smith-fronted Prefab Sprout song from Jordan: The Comeback. Or discuss how Ekstasis, Holter’s home-recorded 2012 album, perhaps still feels more melodically compelling and sonically seductive than Loud City Song. But with a piece of art as striking as this one, it somehow feels uncouth to start dropping vain musical references or even compare it too much to the artist’s previous work.
“World” starts and ends in such a way that if you put the song on repeat it’ll sound like it has no ending and no beginning. It just flows on and on and you lose touch with any sense of structure, order or dramatic arc. Immersing myself with the song continuously for two hours while walking around Vår Frelsers Gravlund, a beautiful cemetery in Oslo, proved extremely depressing, yet strangely intoxicating. The song opens with just Holter’s voice, so close and present it’s almost unbearable. Very tenderly it builds layers upon layers of faceless voices, lifeless horizontal strings, a lonely piano and even a harpsichord as we near the end. Every now and then they all pause for silence. And then patiently move on. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
all the heavens of the world.
Are you looking for anything?”
singer on the fifth floor.
Your hats that I wear when you disappear
How could you see that everyday I talk to you?”
Eventually I did move on from “World” and slowly devoured the entire album. A record of intense precision and nuance, Loud City Song is grounded in organic chamber textures while still maintaining a hallucinative sense of fever dreams, often brought on by cold, cloudy synthesizers, frenzied spoken sections and imaginary foley sounds.
Here is an album so severe, so hopelessly ambitious in scope, that I began to imagine it as an idealized sonic incarnation of all the wi-fi signals invisibly enveloping, intersecting and overlapping a modern city. In fact, many of the songs on Loud City Song feel like musical relatives to the devastatingly brilliant Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, NY, with its eternally burning house, ever-expanding warehouse and play-within-a-play motif.
As the album title hints, Loud City Song zooms out to describe the individual in the city, and the quest for meaning amidst brutal concrete, imposing architecture and contagious gossip. The city is so physically and socially exhausting, so superficial by nature, that loneliness and alienation are inevitable. And yet we choose to live there, just as Charlie Kaufman’s Hazel chose to live in the burning house. Just as Julia Holter herself lives in Los Angeles.
The exquisite dissonance in the word “sing” as Holter marches over you in the creepily catchy “Horns Surrounding Me,” describing how said horns “sing so forcefully and high!” with a mixture of trepidation and exuberance, is both seductive and intimidating. For a moment, the opening of “In the Green Wild” promises a lighter, more whimsical and animated sensibility that I don’t quite follow so easily around these parts, only to swiftly transition towards more captivating spheres. This false start makes for a fascinating sonic palette cleanser whenever I listen to the record, even though I realize it may most likely not be intentional, or even something other listeners would agree with.
Later on, Holter bittersweetly imagines Barbara Lewis’ ’60s hit “Hello Stranger” as an abstract sonic painting that moves in closer and closer, yet becomes more hazy and inapproachable as the song progresses. Somehow it also manages to thoroughly honor the original’s sweet, ethereal melody and the detached lyrical sentiment of platitudes and vague, formal expressions of longing. It’s incredibly moving.
“He’s Running Through My Eyes” and “This Is a True Heart” are both armed with captivating melodies and robust chord progressions that I only recently, after listening to the record for nearly a month, started paying attention to. I may never get used to living with some of the characters Holter inhabits through different ways of using her versatile voice. More than anything, Loud City Song is a generous record. It contains multitudes.
Holter’s lyrics may seem fragmented and vague at first, but the conceptual aura indicated by the album title gives you just enough context to appreciate the streets, buildings and passersby of the often astonishing world Holter invents. You’ll find it mirrors your own more often than not. It’s both heartening and heartbreaking at the same time.
all the cities of the world.
What are you wearing?
I live on the fifth floor of the apartment building.
What am I looking for in you? How can I escape you?”