Ah, experimentalism, that double- edged sword. For some, it can be an empowering tool used to slay through the abysmally boring stuff. For others, it is used to take out the unknown, the fringe, the liminal.
Los Angeleno Julia Holter, who makes her Singapore debut at the new Neon Lights festival at Fort Canning in November, is that rare thing. Coolly, she floats above the fray, untethered to leaden expectations, going about her business creating some of today's most beguiling compositions.
Her fourth album, Have You In My Wilderness, is a gem. It is a gently beseeching call to listeners to come slip through the rabbit hole into her inner sanctum. And what a luminescent place it is. It is sparkling with curiosity and you gawk, like Alice in Wonderland, at the slightly askewed new normal.
Critics have fallen head over heels over her previous releases, which were based on awe-inspiring concepts such as Euripides' Greek tragedy Hippolytus and the 1958 film based on Colette's novel, Gigi. This time round, she has done a U-turn, chugged the Big Ideas and gone microscopic.
As the album title suggests, it is a verdant haven of multifarious possibilities. It is akin to experiencing Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011), where time and again, you are confronted by scene after scene of a lush jungle in the evening. Your senses awakened, you hear and see things: glowing eyes, crickets, rustling leaves.
HAVE YOU IN MY WILDERNESS
It is stream-of-consciousness as a sonic flow. In fact, you note a fluvial thread throughout, as if Holter is adrift in a sea of allusively disparate inspirations.
Is the penultimate track Vasquez a reference to 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who explored the American continent? "Let me tell you about faces I see/The stately, the rugged… I hate an imperious glance in the gold country," she sings, probably in the voice of Vasquez or another namesake. The music swirls, jazzily, augmented with synthesizer and strings.
In another aquatic sojourn, Sea Calls Me Home, she answers the call of the ocean. Some guy whistles blithely as she repeats its chorus three times: "I can't swim, its lucidity so clear." A filigree of horns accompanies her confession, as if it is perfectly emblematic of the humans' ambivalent want and wanting.
This time around, her voice is bell-clear, recorded upfront and centre, even as it is still suspended in reverberation and echo.
"Figures pass so quickly that I realise my eyes know very well/It's impossible to see who I'm waiting for in my coat," she sings, half- speaking, half-crooning, in the airy, percussive opening track Feel Me. It is this openness towards the surroundings, to absorb fleeting impressions which may not make sense at first, that underlies Holter's musical vision.
Such is the mortal coil, flitting between knowing and unknowing, that distinguishes the sentient creature amid this wilderness.