By Andrew Hall | 6 December 2011
Tragedy, Julia Holter’s debut for Leaving Records, has two things going against it by design: first off, it’s not especially easy listening; second, it’s borderline impossible to make heads or tails of when consumed in fragments. The Los Angeles-based composer, whose first full-length serves as conceptual reworking of Euripides’ Hippolytus, uses the album format as if to say she’s producing an Album proper, a record far more dedicated to a framework and an overarching sense of mood than to individual songs. Holter’s work sounds both in step with and several degrees removed from many of her contemporaries, but shies away from danceable or even beat-oriented music in favor of dense walls of synthesizers, drones, and a variety of potentially found or sampled sounds, dedicated not to a specific approach nor to a single instrument across her songs but to crafting and reshaping an icy atmosphere.
The two long compositions that serve to open the album and fill out its first twenty minutes, after an introduction, make this quite obvious. A beat emerges in a moment of “Try To Make Yourself a Work of Art” that could be almost a chorus in someone else’s world, but its tension instead builds to a wall of echo-laden voices, more in motion than looped. By the time it’s transitioned seamlessly into “The Falling Age,” Holter operates in a mode not entirely removed from the territory of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s productions for Julee Cruise; but Holter denies the tropes of pop outright, emphasizing a constant sense of motion in her vocal melodies and her chord progressions, repeating words but never musical ideas. After a single verse, the song transitions into a wall of sound equal parts synthesizer drone and skeletal string arrangements, with both developing and shifting, not necessarily completely in step with each other, across the stereo field. It’s a disarming opening but one that pays off, demonstrating a variety of Holter’s skills while making it virtually impossible to pigeonhole what exactly it is that she’s doing.
When Holter flirts with pop ideas and songs built on keyboards and drum machines, she does it more in mind with the cohesion of her album than the potential of a hit single, making those moments serve as unexpected detours within her longer tracks. The most approachable song within the album springs up from time to time within “Celebration,” with Holter’s reverb-soaked voice coming through clearly around a variety of decidedly non-pop elements. When a clicking percussion track and vocals appear suddenly and unexpectedly three minutes into the field recordings that play throughout much of “So Lillies,” then builds to a climax that incorporates harpsichords and processed voices without breaking down completely, it’s a welcome surprise. However, there’s also the sense that these moments could easily be stretched further without coming close to snapping or turning dull. What could have been greater heights are instead denied, with several potential opportunities for these arrangements to go supernova instead simply giving way to her next idea.
And it’s ultimately the sense, even if the record doesn’t necessarily succeed completely either as pop or as a collection of instrumental-leaning pieces, that Holter is constantly in motion that makes Tragedy so refreshing in 2011. Like few musicians working today, she demonstrates a near-refusal to repeat an idea no matter how good it is, which manifests itself both in an absence of choruses but also a finished product that’s remarkably unique, almost entirely unpredictable from start-to-finish, and genuinely committed to a format that continues to exist yet rarely gets treated as the self-contained unit it was once meant to be. Given her sonic restlessness, I can only hope that Holter will return with something similarly dizzying, no matter what direction she wants to move in, soon.