Julia Holter – Loud City Song

[First Published at OneFourSeven, December 12 2013]

Change is the natural state of a city. It can occur so quickly that a double take throws up two different visions, claustrophobia becomes normality, and silence is so rare that it’s disturbing. Senses are unreliable when overwhelmed, so it’s best not to trust them too much.

Although Julia Holter has never been entirely clear on the inspiration for Loud City Song, it seems she finds her backdrop somewhere between Collette’s 1948 novel Gigi and MGM’s 1958 musical adaptation of it. But Loud City Song is no vain attempt to recreate a time period she never lived through, nor is it a time capsule of digitized nostalgia. Instead, Holter covers turn of the century Paris in the warmth and bewilderment of her Los Angeles to create a record that’s both detached and visceral.

Holter’s abilities as an eccentric and chaotic writer weren’t in doubt on previous offerings, but Loud City Song is more selective and even minimal in parts, doling out chaos sparingly. Part of this is down to Holter’s instrumental arrangement; this time favouring a mini-orchestra of musicians, with strings and horns to swirl around her voice and keys, rather than the clatter of sounds at her disposal before. Their rise and fall allows Holter’s lyrics to lash out then lie back.

Part fierce, part lost in her own world, somewhere between the written word and her own musical adaptation, Holter’s protagonist is equally adept at spotting others as she is at feeling eyes on her. Horns Surrounding Me, which is robotic and fluid all at once, showcases Holter’s taste for the grandiose; flirting with dissonance, and throwing out images and memories like hallucinations. Similarly, the remarkable cover of Hello Stranger that forms the record’s centrepiece comes and goes like a figment of the imagination, with Holter’s voice warmer and more reflective, bathed in reverb but always afloat.

This is a True Heart is a movement into something more conventionally melodic, and it’s an impressive foray into pop sentiments. Above all, Holter knows how to stretch her work into something greater, without ignoring the simplicity that gives it weight. But sandwiched between the dramatic beauty of He’s Running Through My Eyes, with its melancholy on its sleeve, and the stunningly lonesome and disturbing City Appearing, it falls away.

Holter’s scope is so wide, both here and during the course of her career, that any attempt to classify her would be a mistake. Throughout Loud City Song, though, there’s an almost disturbing intimacy; a lyrical and personal focus on a protagonist desperate to break out of her world and into her city. It’s this that makes Loud City Song one of the most fascinating and moving releases of the year, and confirms Holter as one of our generation’s great musical innovators.