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Julia Holter’s ‘Tragedy’ stands apart with rare poise. The LA artist and CalArts electronic music graduate has been around for a little while now. Collaborating with Nite Jewel, writing chamber music, reinterpreting Burmese song and working with acid folk musician Linda Perhacs are all intriguing things she has done, but ‘Tragedy’ is probably the first many have heard of her. It’s a record that sees her fine-tuning the creative instincts of her previous work and, rather quietly and unassumingly, making 2011’s most startlingly original album.
‘Tragedy’ sounds like nothing else around. It’s an album based on ancient Greek writer Euripides’s tragedy ‘Hippolytus’, first performed in 428 BC, which tells the tale of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, dooming the title character for worshipping Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, rather than herself. In a time where people are sampling ’90s R&B stars, referencing the ’80s and pop culture of the last 30 years, reaching this far back is a grand statement. Holter hasn’t made a record that just slots in nicely – she’s aiming for timeless and radical art.
Importantly though, ‘Tragedy’ wears it’s historical weight lightly. It’s a clever album, but it never gets carried away with it’s own experimentalism. Her training shows in the neo-classical string arrangements and carefully pitched sweeps of noise, but above all this is an album aiming for clarity rather than high-brow obscurity. The play’s story unfolds in rumbling pastoral atmospheres, hard-edged machine-like rhythms, and it’s beautiful and searingly emotional – two things pop should always be. In this way, Julia Holter fits best alongside American artists from Arthur Russell to Sonic Youth to Laurie Anderson who have bent pop music by coming at it from avant-garde composition.
Listening to this album is an immersive experience. There’s been a lot of music made this year which has rather self-consciously tried to sound otherworldly, but hardly anything can match ‘Tragedy’ for its strength of character, which makes it completely transportive. The vocoder-voiced spectre of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman runs through Goddess Eyes, but then in parallel with it there’s Holter’s own voice upfront, duetting with the mechanical self she’s created. At the heart of ‘Tragedy’ is Julia Holter, unclouded, using snippets of text from the play, inhabiting its characters through vocal manipulation, but always herself, ringing out clear, keeping things breath-takingly human.
The really exciting thing about ‘Tragedy’ is, though it’s so brave and unique and easily one of the year’s best, this is not the best record Holter will make. There’s already an album pencilled in for RVNG Intl. early next year, and what we can only imagine is a long career ahead of her. But while we wait, poised for what she’ll do in 2012, we need to remember that in ‘Tragedy’, Julia Holter has given us the most beautifully radical album of the here and now. And somehow made it all sound so effortless.