Julia Holter is just plain intriguing. That was true when she released 2011’s Tragedy, a concept album based on the Greek play Hippolytus, and it’s even more true with Ekstasis. Normally, it’s a dicey proposition for an artist as experimental as Holter to move away from a strong central concept like the one that drove Tragedy in favor of a more freeform songwriting experience. Here though, the result is glorious because it’s given Holter more freedom, and she knows exactly what to do with it.
This is an album of unique soundscapes that belong equally to summer daydreams and dusty cathedrals devoted to the worship of ambient pop. There’s scarcely an understandable lyric on the entire disc, but it’s evocative of the kind of dreamy, high-level vocalizing that put Sigur Ros on the map. Holter stands out with a stronger, statico beat and more versatility by far. Even the most ambitious of overdubbing pioneers have never been as crafty with vocals as Holter gets on “Our Sorrows.” There, she becomes a kind of human pipe-organ, turning her voice into an instrument of baroque complexity as glimpsed from the bottom of the sea.
Then without missing a beat, the record switches gear and produces a poppy, near-danceable winner with “In the Same Room,” with a perfect interplay of beat, vocal harmony, synth that tapers elegantly to a perfect ending. “In the Same Room” is still the odd duck out, though. While Holter has certainly gotten poppier and more accessible since Tragedy, most of the songs here are still her particular flavor of post-modern hymn.
“Fur Felix” could be the soundtrack to some steampunk version of Santa’s workshop, and “Four Gardens” could be what a children’s choir would be singing in a wuxia film set in space. Holter’s ability to pick the right sound for the right occasion is matchless, and she’s succeeded in creating something that feels terrifically ancient and modern at the same time.
The complexity here admits pianos as easily as synthesizers, and in most cases, the instrumentation is a worthy partner to Holter’s voice, never quite overshadowed by the unique overdubbing and harmonizing. According to Holter, the album, like her larger body of work, was made using home-recording methods. For better or worse, that doesn’t come through at all: it’s a polished-sounding work, as it would need to be to support this much musical ambition. It’s also terrific.
Julia Holter – Ekstasis tracklist:
- “Our Sorrows”
- “Für Felix”
- “Moni Mon Amie”
- “Goddess Eyes II”
- “Four Gardens”
- “Boy in the Moon”
- “Goddess Eyes I”
- “In the Same Room”
- “This Is Ekstasis”