“Turn the Light On,” the first song on Julia Holter’s fifth album, begins in tumult. It crashes in: bows skidding across the strings of violins, drums tumbling as if down a craggy mountain, horns searing the scene like an irradiated sunset. Above all that, Holter sings, her voice high and insistent, straining to be heard over the wreckage. It’s the good kind of apocalypse, this song, the one where systems die but people live. The banks come crashing down, the drones fall out of the sky, and everyone builds homes from the rubble.
Aviary starts like a movie and it lasts as long as one: 90 minutes on the dot, the length of an independent rom-com or a forgivingly concise blockbuster. Holter didn’t set out to make a double album, but she let the music sprawl once she realized she needed the space. Like much of the electroacoustic pop she’s woven together since she released her debut, Tragedy, in 2011, Aviary started as a kernel of an idea that bloomed. “It came from this language-less human need to immerse myself in sound,” she tells me when I call her at home in Los Angeles. She began writing the record in 2016; the original version of “Turn the Light On,” she says, was slower, more soothing. The version that ended up on the album sounds like someone breaking out of that haven and returning to the world.
The world has gotten worse since 2016, the year when America’s collective consciousness at last entertained the idea that the world might be bad. Or, rather, the bad things about the world are louder now, and more enthusiastically celebrated by people in power in a macabre show of dominance. The cartoon villains won. It’s enough to make any artist go back to the basics, hit the books, think deeply about what people are like and why. “I’ve been thinking about love and empathy. It seems like a time where it’s questioned daily if empathy is a real thing,” Holter says. “It’s not just Donald Trump. We have autocratic leaders all over the world now who are challenging human rights. It’s not necessarily that that’s new, but it’s happening in a new way.” New, or at least newly saturated, full of spite and zeal and ridiculous cruelty, our contemporary fascism avails itself of the code of reality TV: Anything’s worth doing, so long as you can get people to look.
Holter, who personally finds the clip of the internet overwhelming, explores the opposite logic in her music. “One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m very sensitive and can’t handle a lot of communication all the time,” she says. “It really takes a toll on my mental state. That’s one of the things about music that I love—it’s not communication at all. Even when there’s lyrics, they’re not functioning like normal words. The beauty of it is that those words become music.” There’s a lot of text in her work, but it doesn’t demand to be understood semantically and responded to on the spot. The music asks little of its listeners save for the patience to ride it out, and a willingness to linger between modes. Pop songs form in the nebulous space of her albums, but they’re not the rule and neither is die-hard abstraction. A Julia Holter record is familiar but not too familiar, comforting and unsettling in turn, frustrating at points and then, when the surprising, joyful melodies crest, profoundly satisfying.
Her lyrics tend to be studded with historical references and esoteric quotes—Aviary drips in Tibetan Buddhist chants, Pushkin poems, Medieval troubadour songs, and fragments of Sappho, though, unless you’re an expert in any one area, you’ll need to study the lyric sheet to parse them. These source materials can disorient the ear, as on “Chaitius,” where Holter switches between English and Occitan mid-sentence. They can also hide in plain sight, as on “I Shall Love 2,” which translates a fragment of Dante’s Inferno into an unassuming pair of English questions: “Why do you squander? Why do you hoard?” Holter refers to this historical sediment as “time warps,” disruptions in the flow of the present that call to mind parallels, or contrasts, with the past. She notes, for example, that the bloodthirst of the Crusades still drives present-day imperialism, and that modern capitalism would strike most people who have ever lived as obscene. “Thinking about making a profit [in the Middle Ages] was sinful,” she says. “The way our world works would be totally insane to them.”
Though both of Holter’s parents are historians, and she thinks she must have inherited some of their interest in the past, she rejects the idea that her music is “academic” or “literary.” She’s no more influenced by outside texts than any other musician; having earned her master’s in composition, she’s just used to citing her sources more meticulously. “I’m pulling together things that resonate with me and mixing them up and playing with them. Like material—remixing texts,” she says. Likewise, her degrees in music supply a foundation for her work, but they don’t inform it directly. The songs on Aviary didn’t begin as sheets of notation, but as voice-and-synthesizer demos recorded at home. Many of the vocal takes on the album are from those original solo recordings, which she used to guide collaborators in the studio. Rather than drape her vocals on top of the final product, she used the voice as a seed for her arrangements—an unusual order of operations, and one that helped solidify Aviary‘s enclosed, introspective sound.
The album bears a lot of melancholy and in turn offers a lot of solace. But its most arresting moments come when Holter sloughs that weight—when she turns her gaze from suffering and comfort, and fixates instead on irreverent play. Midway through “Les Jeux to You,” she drops the plot on purpose, abandons weary lyrics about bubonic plague in melting permafrost and launches into a cascade of gibberish. “I see! I no! I yes! I you! I ace! I hi! I say! I low! I run! I fall! I can! I true! I fool! I fog! I bad! I blue!” she exclaims, flinging syllables around like streamers over a celebratory beat. Holter wrote the words on the fly, she tells me, caught up in how they sounded, in the way the music of a word obscures the literal definition. “That was one of my favorite moments, just because it was so pure, so cathartic,” she says. “I really just needed to play, to have fun and express these sounds.”
The silliness of the riff balances lines that teeter on the edge of catastrophe, like “I always find myself dead from a fourteenth century/How did I forget I’m part of the dust?” from the severe “Voce Simul.” But there is another edge to Aviary. It rises up during “I Shall Love 2,” when the thin drum machines and the birdlike vocal trills give way, and Holter sings, “In all the human errors/There is something true,” and the horns and strings and upright bass melt together into a torrent, and the title of the song becomes a chant. Holter multitracks her voice until it’s its own choir of people pledging devotion, and then the words melt too, the vowels escaping their consonants, swinging alongside the instruments, fluid and explosive. It doesn’t sound like a love song. There’s no object of this affection, no beloved to absorb the energetic spasm: “I shall love” isn’t followed by a “you.” Holter promises love to no one in particular, and rather than finding the sentiment empty, she renders it abundant. This love isn’t a transaction. Because it’s directionless, it’s free to multiply itself without limit.
Someone recently asked Holter if she was worried about her music disappearing after her death. “I was like, no, I don’t care about my work enduring through time,” she tells me. “Art is always a process of translation, of sharing from people to people, from century to century. I don’t know what the purpose of art is, but there’s some comfort that it still exists. Why was I making this record? I don’t know. Is this a refuge for me? No, I don’t know what this is. But we have to keep translating.” It’s not the text that counts; it’s the writing, the impulse to metabolize one work and make another. This is what gets people through time. Here, at what looks like the end of time, to make music—to make anything—can seem a wild act of delinquency, an investment in a future that won’t come. But if there’s anything futures have in common, it’s that they’re inconceivable, then they’re here.