8/10 Julia Holter’s debut solo album Tragedy, released only last September, demonstrated the LA-based musician’s thoroughly arresting capacity for creating music as artwork, her reimagining of Euripides’ Hippolytus both artful and oblique. Now she returns with Ekstasis, a more loosely-connected sequence of songs that highlight a softer side to her fiercely creative vision.
This time around the glorious, often near-angelic qualities of Holter’s singing are more obviously to the fore. From the stunning three-part harmonies on opening track ‘Marienbad’ to the soaring crests of oohs and ahhs that adorn ‘Goddess Eyes II’ and ‘Our Sorrows’, the authorial voice is more or less consistently appealing, infused with great beauty and feeling. Holter effortlessly creates intense feelings of intimacy, notably with the grave tones of ‘Our Sorrows’, the whispered lines of ‘Four Gardens’ and with ‘This Is Ekstasis’, where this intimacy combines with panting breaths used as percussion to give an unconventional yet compelling erotic resonance.
‘This Is Ekstasis’ and the part-lullaby ‘Boy In The Moon’ both repeat one of the most endearing effects found on Tragedy: a kind of time lag/echo repetition of the vocal line, slightly disorientating but also curiously soothing. Elsewhere, Holter’s delivery can be sharp and staccato, as on ‘Marienbad’ and ‘Für Felix (a song she wrote for her dying dog), adding an edge and a harshness to the musical palate – as does the cold, teutonic delivery of sections of ‘Boy In The Moon”.
With four lengthy pieces to its name, Ekstasis is often characterised by internal twists and turns. A track will start out fairly conventionally and then digress, with a stark near-silence, an impressive a cappella interlude, or an improvised break on a saxophone or cello. That this never feels like an intrusion, a bolt-on or a compromise of a song’s integrity is a testament to the skill with which Holter has assembled this album. The listener is very much carried along on her more experimental journeyings rather than feel alienated or confused. And there are elements of playfulness and great charm that serve to counterbalance the undoubted seriousness of her intent and delivery.
The inclusion not only of a re-worked version of ‘Goddess Eyes’ – one of Tragedy‘s best moments – but also its sister piece ‘Goddess Eyes II’ (like a variation on a theme) feels slightly superfluous, the original piece made somehow less relevant when stripped of its intended context. But Ekstasis as a whole displays more than enough fresh invention to inspire, beguile and enthral for this to be forgivable. Julia Holter has once again shown us that music can be artistic and abstract without sacrificing any of its allure or inclusivity. The result is simply a delight to the ear.
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