Julia Holter’s Ekstasis is a challenging album. To be described as challenging, or even difficult in the realms of film and literature, is often a characterization that is delivered with the highest of praise, typically reserved for those works that through their very difficulty impart an emotional or intellectual impact upon their audience that rises to the level of greatness. There is a sense within these mediums that the greatest works of art are those which require the audience to earn their own reward by successfully navigating their dense, complex and multifaceted terrain. This is not, however, typically the case in the medium of popular music.
In approaching Ekstasis, I was a bit concerned that listening to it on my own might be something like reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land without a multi-degreed English professor to guide me through the process. Sure, I might get something out of it, but nothing close to the richness of experience that I could gain from an informed and guided reading, one that would help me traverse the maze of literary, religious and cultural allusions that make Eliot’s poem such an important and unparalleled work of literary art. I’m not saying that Holter’s work is in any way comparable with that of T.S. Eliot, though it is quite excellent within the context of her own artistic milieu. Rather, her acknowledged points of reference range for me from the moderately obscure (Laurie Anderson and Arthur Russell) to the totally unfamiliar (medieval European and Indian harmonium music), so I wondered if I would get it on my own or need to find myself an ethnomusicologist or classically trained composer to guide me through it.
Fortunately for me, and for other lovers of innovative and experimental pop music, Holter filters her often obscure sources of inspiration through a musical vernacular that is unquestionably pop. In so doing, she makes a powerful case for the value of challenging her listeners while remaining solidly within the conventions of the popular form. For the reward that her music offers is substantial, as Ekstasis is one of the most unusual and unprecedented indie pop albums to come along in quite awhile.
“Marienbad” opens the album with a sequence of isolated harmonic elements that drift variably in and out of focus: an apreggiated Fender Rhodes line, an accentuated half time harpsichord pattern and Holter’s distinctive, almost esoteric vocal arrangements that are a paradoxical combination of choral complexity and folksy immediacy. At the outset, the song seems poised to float away into some seriously out there, new-agey territory, but then at around the one minute mark, the disparate parts congeal around a simple backbeat of tambourine and kick drum while Holter weaves several distinct, yet intertwining vocal melodies that really dig into the ear, reminding us that we are indeed some place within, albeit marginally, the realm of pop. Another minute later, that sense of fleeting familiarity is somehow both heightened and disturbed as the kick drum builds into a pumping, four-on-the-floor beat and a chorus of indecipherable echoing vocal tones rains down upon the steady rhythm. A moment of lingering silence ushers in the song’s final section which brings all of the various components seamlessly together with a catchy, chanted refrain, spritely keyboards and a laid back disco pulse.
The following track, “Our Sorrows”, is a more straightforward bedroom pop number that foregrounds Holter’s hushed and haunting vocal melody to the backdrop of glittering keyboard atmospherics. Then things take a turn for the gothic (more Horace Walpole than Robert Smith), as Holter’s otherworldly, monastic chanting and scattered, wandering bass lines merge in a beguiling confluence with the underlying pop song structure. These metamorphic properties whereby conditions of immediacy and accessibility converge and unite with more abstract and experimental constructions of sound are the defining characteristics of Holter’s unique approach to her craft, and a theme that runs throughout the entirety of Ekstasis.
“In the Same Room” provides the album’s poppiest moment, in which bright harpsichord tones and MIDI hand clap rhythms carry Holter’s lyrical meditation upon the impossibilities of memory and desire as she sings, “I can’t recall his face / But I want to remember.” Later, on “Für Felix”, she gives her listeners a winking nod to her own musical pretensions, at the same time constructing a strangely catchy number from hand plucked cello strings and chiming Casio tones. The closing track, “This is Ekstasis”, is an expansive nine-minute suite held together through Holter’s use of a medieval isorhythmic technique whereby the prominent bass progression morphs slightly with each repeating line, carrying the song along slowly, almost imperceptibly, from its place of origin to a distant, unrecognizable destination at the album’s close.
Holter claims inspiration for her music in medieval illuminated manuscripts; mysterious, anonymously authored texts that have somehow survived the centuries in all of their ornately textured glory. “When I see them,” she has said, “I hear voices. I am continually following the voices in the gold leaf. I can’t know them but I will follow their beautiful song.” This serves as an apt description for the feeling that one gets when listening to her music. Although the complex layers of meaning and obscure allusions may seem perpetually out of reach to your casual consumer of indie pop music, it is still a beautiful path to follow and the sense of mystery and unknowability that emerges is an essential component of this music’s enjoyment.