3. Aviary - Julia Holter (Domino Recordings)
When I was in my late teens I saw Andrei Tarkovsky's spellbinding film 'Nostalghia' at my local arthouse cinema. As with many of the late Russian directors films, there were scenes that were poetic, dream-like, soulful, more like paintings than a movie. It's a breathtaking work and I realse that I know only two things about the remarkable closing scenes of ‘Nostalghia’ – firstly, it’s the most moving and beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen in a film, an image that has stayed with me for decades and secondly…I haven’t the vaguest idea what any of it’s about.
Having spent the last few months listening to ‘Aviary’ by Julia Holter I am similarly in awe and perplexed by it as I was by Tarkovsky masterpiece*. The musical landsapes are striking, vivid, sometimes tender and at other times room-emptyingly harsh (I'll get to the droning bagpipes later). The album's title is inspired by a line by American-Lebanese writer Etan Adnan ('I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds...'). Throughout the ninety minutes of this album, Holter suggests that birds evoke memories and thoughts and that birdsong can either be beautiful or shriekingly painful - much like our memories or thoughts that fly around our heads. Anyone expecting anything as straightforward as it's predecessor ('Have You In My Wilderness'), should look elsewhere, Holter has returned to the avant garde and this album has lyrical nods to Dante, medieval songs, poems by Pushkin...to name but a few.
'Aviary' opens with the cacophonous 'Turn the Light On', crashing drums, screeching strings, Holter screaming with and above the noise. It's a shocking, visceral start.
The pounding drums, jabbing keyboards of the single 'Whether' provide one of the albums more conventional moments. Holter's wondrously strange vocals whirl.around the tune. The words are mostly indecipherable but the overall sound is intoxicating. .Harmonium, viola, trumpets and peculiar wordless vocals mix together for the opening first half of the strangely baroque 'Chaitius' It fades to silence before Holter starts to speak: 'Joi, joi / I feel so alove' the rest is a dreamy blur, whatever the lines 'The bananas are getting yellow/Don't let me forget/Please take my temperature' means, is a mystery.
The droning bagpipes that I mentioned earlier dominate the first four minutes of 'Every Day is an Emergency.' It's sounds like the unapologetic din of car horns - maybe it's the unpleasant sound of modern living that Holter is emulating (if so, she succeeded), the final part of the song is a quieter affair, Holter alone at the piano, escaping the madness before the dissonant noises re-emerge.
After the equally bewildering 'Another Dream' the lead single 'I Shall Love 2' is a sweet moment of clarity with a bird like vocal harmony that lingers in the mind. The tinkling piano at the start of 'Les Jeux to You' suggests familiar Holter territory, but this then explodes into a chirping childlike song:..(' I knew I can I blood I food I grow I eyes I shirt I mind I room....' etc.), It's delightfully odd, yet again, it's the sounds of words and not the meanings of the words themselves that make this so affecting.
The sublime strings of 'Words I Heard' and Holter's passionate, soaring voice combine to make the most beautiful moment on 'Aviary'.
Then the bagpipes return fot the groggy 'I Shall Love 1' dramatically pucture the tranquility before the delicate 'Why Sad Songs' closes the album on a solemn and mournful note.
'Aviary' is one of those rare things, like 'Tilt' or 'The Drift' by Scott Walker, it is a staggering work of imagination (although, of course, less nightmarish), that challenges what is possible within the confines of an album. It is a work of genius.
*All of Tarkovsky's films are, in their own way, masterpieces:
'Ivan's Childhood' (1962),
'Andrei Rublev' (1966),
The Sacrifice (1986).