The first track on Tragedy, Julia Holter's debut album, is titled "Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art." She tried—and succeeded, like, boom, immediately.
It begins with a boat's foghorn, pregnant silences, and operatic female vocals from a Bach chorale. Then a mournful tuba or cello melody wafts into earshot, then what sounds like a morose bass-clarinet solo by jazz avant-gardist Eric Dolphy—although it could be Holter's own melancholy croon. Gradually, a slow, stern rhythm formulates with chain-rattling accents, and Holter intones lyrics from Euripides's mythological play Hippolytus. The rhythm drops out and a subtly grandiose organ drone that could ripple Vangelis's beard drifts through before dissipating into an eerie wisp of timeless mystery. The song evolves over its 10 minutes with an unpredictable yet methodical logic. This is how you announce your artistic intentions.
All of that verbiage makes the LA-based Holter's music seem highbrow, and it is. She played cello and studied classical composition at University of Michigan, and she derives lyrics from sources like American poet Frank O'Hara, English novelist Virginia Woolf, and Anne Carson, a music scholar she met at UM. Motifs lifted from Ali Akbar Khan's "Raga Asawari" on "Our Sorrows," off Holter's second full-length, Ekstasis, add to the rarefied air.
But Holter is also a pop artist, albeit one who's striving to elevate the form to standards previously set by experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson, most famous for her 1981 hit "O Superman." Brainy British music magazine the Wire recently published a big feature on Holter, but she's also earned a "Best New Music" rating on Pitchfork for Ekstasis. If intelligent artists like Zola Jesus and St. Vincent can blow up, perhaps there's room for Holter to enter the realm of high-IQ'd females popular enough to play massive festivals. Although her proclivity for writing songs that last 6 to 12 minutes and wield unsettling drones may cause some to fidget, Holter's nuanced melodies are undeniably enchanting.
If there's going to be one song that launches Holter to mass consciousness, it will be "Goddess Eyes," which originally appears on Tragedy, then resurfaces in two more iterations on Ekstasis. Rolling on almost comically systematic beats and hand claps, "Goddess Eyes" exudes a stately melodic grace. Holter's solemnly gorgeous vocals (both clear and electronically altered) and a refrain that recalls both Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" and Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" make it a masterpiece of composure—and one of the unlikeliest earworms you'll hear all year.
Holter takes pop to graduate school and inflates it with valedictorian authority.