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First, a proposition: Music, like the universe, has four dimensions, three in space and one in time. Great music aims to prove this.
It’s a fool who tries to assign intentions to albums, especially ones that gather a sense of spontaneous generation – pure happening – that is only the end result of the hard, hard work of making art. But that sense of pure happening is what seems to announce Ekstasis, and not Julia Holter, as the creator of the great, celebrated album that carries both their names, so let’s start by saying that Ekstasis aims to demonstrate the way we live in and among spaces. This is a central fact of existence, but not one that’s very obvious to us, or, alternately, one that’s so obvious that it ceases to be obviously remarkable. The album’s best song, “In the Same Room,” renames “ekstasis” as the ship Saturnia that will carry two interlocutors across the sea of a suddenly enchanted room, and is about the way music transforms space, tests it. My apartment gets new dimensions every time the song’s layers pool against its walls. Anyway: Albums don’t do anything except make sound, of course, but if we’re so foolish we can assign intention to Julia Holter, or say that “ekstasis” is the feeling of inhabiting and moving through space.
Consider the album’s two most striking moments of space creation. “Boy in the Moon” renders an airplane takeoff with the plainness of Kraftwerk’s representational art, with nothing more than hugely swelling and softly decaying viola. More striking yet, more remarkable probably than anything else I’ve heard all year, is the moment in “Our Sorrows” when a crowded place full of indistinguishable voices materializes against a snaky bassline. Possibly this place is the bus stop found in the lyrics, but it sounds too close, contained, for that, more like an artificial analogue of the live scene of Alternative TV’s 1978 “Alternatives,” which offers, across ten minutes, the story of punk rock in real time, from the mouth of Mark Perry to the ears of his murmuring audience. The scene of “Our Sorrows” sounds instead like a studio creation, and as a result it’s better able to transmit the idea, the philosophic form, if you will, of a crowded place. That’s appropriate: It’s a sceneless age we’re living in, and I can’t imagine what contemporary scene could hold Julia Holter. For her lyrics, she borrows lines from Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, Frank O’Hara, Euripides.
If it seems like I’m describing an album of special effects, let me reiterate: This is some of the smartest pop music you’ll hear all year—quite literally, grounded in literature, philosophy, art. Frightening as that might sound, there’s nothing intimidating in Holter’s art, no more than in the writing of Georges Perec, the French author whose idea about spaces I stole, to the extent I even understand it (the accidental convergence of my reading and listening is where all my “ideas” come from). Perec was a great writer, observer, citizen of space, but can’t really be counted among philosophers, having never attempted to organize his arguments with the same kind of transparent rigor he brought to his writing’s formal constraints. Julia Holter’s ideas too are primarily latent, embedded in the slipperiness of her language, discoverable only from the pleasure the listener finds in their execution. This is important work, no less because music is curiously absent in the spaces Perec writes about.
Ekstasis, like its not-so-obvious antecedents, R.E.M.’s Murmur or Deerhunter’s Microcastle, hovers on the better side of articulateness and meaning; that is to say, it remains just so inarticulate and non-transparent as to continually prick the listener’s imagination. I’m not sure if the refrain of album opener “Marienbad” is supposed to be “ten signs that read silence” or “ten sighs,” but I do know the signs or sighs must be pulled from the same vocabulary as Holter’s music, so clearly does it speak a thrilling silence. Happily I’ve come around to talking about Holter as the author of Ekstasis; she’s everywhere on it, playful and putting on different voices, making ostensible accidents with the authority of Beat Happening, training us, along with Lower Dens, Chromatics, Perfume Genius and others, to relisten to this quiet, quiet year in music.
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