Among the infinitely divisible dichotomies in art and music, one of them divides between those who reference Greek mythology and those who don’t. The Greek name-droppers are a literary crew, seeking out human experience through the paradigms of old stories that are revisited throughout time. The other camp takes a more observational approach, expressing art through personal experience. One isn’t inherently better, they’re just different.
At first glance, Julia Holter fits squarely in the former category. Her 2011 album, Tragedy, is meditation on Euripides’ tragic play Hippolytus, and her follow-up, Ekstatis (2012), takes its name from the Greek root of the word “ecstasy,” meaning to be out of oneself. Following her critically-acclaimed third LP Loud City Song (based on a mid-century, Paris-set musical), her fourth album, Have You in My Wilderness, picks up the referential and narrative impulse with a 19th-century bandit and a secondary character in French short story, among other characters that wander through the unconventional pop.
One of the joys of Holter’s music, though (and there are many, many joys), is its ability to perfectly meld the two camps. She folds the dichotomy into itself by grounding mythology in accessible intimacy and elevating the personal to folkloric heights.
Take that secondary character in the French short story, for example. “Lucette Stranded on the Island” borrows from Colette’s Chance Acquaintances, in which the title character’s lover strands her on the Balearic Islands. Beginning with percussive sounds and a light, shimmering string, Holter’s voice sounds close and exposed as she sings with conversational phrasing in the first-person, inhabiting Colette as she explores her predicament and making her seem grounded and recognizable (“I love going to the movies,” she reveals at the start).
Throughout the song, Holter switches between the intimate first-person voice—particularly pronounced when she speaks her lines, a device she uses elsewhere on the album to great effect—and a floating, ethereal chorus that speaks from a detached, third-person view. As if shifting between a Greek chorus and soliloquy, “Lucette Stranded on the Island” tells the same story from different views, and in doing so, opens up an inviting sense of space.
Even when the story is smaller, leaving behind Mediterranean Islands for matters of the human heart, the narrator slides and shifts. Holter brilliantly adapts her voice to the accompanying instruments and stories, sometimes sounding very small and earthly, sometimes far and airy. When she sings, “Shake me awake / Am I the man you see through your mystery eyes” at the beginning of “Have You in My Wilderness," for example, each consonant lands heavily. But later on, at the word “cascade,” her voice doubles and opens up with reverb—playing out the song’s story of feeling close to someone (“In your water I’ve dropped anchor”) whom you feel is running away.
There’s a sense of this grasping and running away throughout the album, with experimental pop that alternates between approachable grooves and irregular twists. Sometimes the music plays a little hard-to-get, but as with most things, that makes the desire to get it even stronger. Positioning it between the accessible and esoteric, the mythological and intimate, Julia Holter has created a complex and mesmerizing album that, like the old stories its artist draws on, begs to be revisited over a long period of time.