Originally released back in March over the pond, the subsequent few months have seen Julia Holter’s second LP Ekstasis garner the kind of praise usually reserved for returning deities. This isn’t a point with which to quarrel – in fact, it’s been a delight to hear a record born of such idiosyncrasy unite fans and critics alike for once. Now getting a full release in the UK thanks to those ever reliable Domino folks, we’re granted the welcome opportunity to gaze upon it minus the presence of the hype that usually accompanies such releases. The results, as with the record, are not without surprise.
Though the lines between Ekstasis and its predecessor Tragedy are easy to draw (there’s even a song repeated from the debut), Holter’s second album is very much a leap forward. This applies both to its embracing of a wider sonic palette and a hitherto untapped pop sensibility, previously shrouded under layers of ambient cellos and ten minute epics. If Tragedy saw her retreat from the mainstream and set up camp in the woods, this is the sound of the party she’s having now she feels fully at home. And though it’s still a curious, unique listen, it turns out that we’re all invited – hooks, infectious melodies and moments that beg for a singalong now abound in her work.
Comparisons can be most easily drawn with the likes of Laurie Anderson (a master of building ethereal melodies from only the most skeletal structure) and Broadcast, with whom Holter shares a love of making reverb-ed up samples and distant drum machines sound more human than they were ever intended to (see ‘Our Sorrows’ or ‘Moni Mon Amie’ for the most evident examples). Her voice, always coated in echo and sounding like a cloud that floats curiously amidst the rest of the songs’ sky, could prove divisive – they’re the kind of vocals that will delight as many with their beauty as they will infuriate others with their kookiness. But Holter’s got the voice she’s got, and plays to its strengths – you couldn’t, for example imagine a singer really attacking a song like the richly melancholic ‘Four Gardens’; rather, it has to be massaged out in to the open.
Though the way she sings what she sings is likely to have as many fans as detractors, there’s a whole world to explore in what this talented lyricist uses her voice to say, and on the moments where it doesn’t sound like Enya (there aren’t many, but honestly, both ‘Goddess Eyes’ parts 1 and 2 sound quite a bit like her – catchy, mind…), Ekstasis’ musical backing is difficult to fault. Everything is so delicately placed and finely tuned that an understandable reaction, when confronted with something like the swathes of sound on ‘Boy In The Moon’, is just to sit and wonder how she got everything sounding quite so peculiarly lovely.
I struggle to call it quite the landmark album that people were deeming it upon its initial release, but that needn’t be a problem – records like this are often just too weird and wonderful to be able to cope with the pressure of being assigned “classic” status. What’s perhaps more exciting than anything actually on Ekstasis is where Holter could go from here. As this album ably proves, whilst they might lack something in coherence, this woman is not short on ideas – all of them entirely worthy of further exploration.