Album Review: Julia Holter – Something In The Room She Moves

[Domino; 2024]

Even in our most evolved stages, we are by nature extremely stubborn creatures. And it’s something capitalism – providentially – cannot fix. So much for subjugation, right? We can’t help but start a new Nier: Automata campaign, despite not finishing all the previous games we started. There’s unmitigated joy in a stray ad-lib from a scripted film, forging an immortal moment where audience and actor are briefly on the exact same frequency. We don’t allow a Mococoa Drink All Natural Cocoa Beans From The Upper Slopes of Mt Nicaragua with No Artificial Sweeteners to sway us from having a nervous breakdown. It all points to the notion that we as a species we are not really meant to be coerced into these linear paths: we are here to wander, to be blindsided, drift in and out of focus and explore all cardinal directions. To paraphrase English musician John Mayall, we just need a little room to move.

This may be why I was so struck by what Julia Holter said in a recent interview I conducted with her for Under The Radar, which plainly shattered the myth of the artist as this all-governing genius: “I’m one of those undisciplined people that never warms up my voice before performing,” she said. “And I’m really not a good planner. And I don’t own the best, most ergonomic chair. In the studio, I don’t always do things in the smartest, most efficient way. So for example, it’s very me to not plan on helping anyone get in the mood to record. I’ m more like the person that sends out an email at the very last minute to ask, ‘Hey, would it be okay if you came in right now?’’ So that’s my honest answer. We just kind of stumble into the studio, and I desperately tried to convey what I’m trying to convey. I send these messy charts to people at the last minute. I’m trying to get better at it though. I’m trying to get better at communicating my ideas.”

In a sea on uncertainties, it feels quite certain to say this, however: Something In The Room She Moves is the California composer’s most personal record to date. That’s saying something for an artist so high-wired to intertwine her music with the conceptual, historical and fictional.

Themes of birth and death hover over these recordings; in a span of mere months during the pandemic, Holter’s nephew suddenly died. Not long after, she became pregnant with her daughter. Instead of documenting these divergent life-altering experiences autobiographically, Something In The Room delineates their frantic vibrations. This more inward, fluid approach is evident on “Evening Mood”, which is guided by Devin Hoff’s lilting, dexterous bass flourishes and an actual recording of Holter’s ultrasound session, processed through an array of effects. It soothes you into a slumber and nudges you awake, instead of blatantly shocking you out of your system like Something In The Room She Moves’ critically-acclaimed predecessor Aviary did at specific moments.

The closest thing to the cacophony of that album follows “Evening Mood” right away; “Talking to the Whisper”, which employs a similarly stuttering, jerking pulse as “Feel You”, but unlike that song – which is about as unabashedly chamber pop as Holter has gotten – this song structurally falls apart in a swarm of woodwinds and brass instruments. “Love can be shattering,” Holter exclaims, before letting the arrangement fall apart in a discordant disarray. There is no palatable adage here to wrap everything up neatly, but an acute sonic expression of processing grief.

A lot of songs on Something In The Room She Moves seem awestruck in some kind of holding pattern, less inclined to chase cast-iron, tangible results, and more about leaning into the joy of creating itself. It explains why many of the pieces on the album are broken up in abrupt silences, as if resetting themselves like some kind of wind-up toy. The listener joins Holter in her inquisition to let her compositions to evolve into multiple shapes and outcomes. It checks well with the album artwork too, a painting by childhood friend Christina Quarles handpicked by Holter called “Wrestlin'”: two disembodied humanoid figures entangled with each other. You can’t tell whether they are embracing or fighting: but anyone vaguely familiar with wrestling knows that in the end, it’s all about working together.

Concurrently, Something In The Room She Moves revolves more than ever around spirited collaboration. Alongside Holter, Hoff, her partner and fellow composer Tashi Wada (synths, bagpipes), Chris Speed (saxophone, clarinet), Sarah Belle Reid (trumpet, electronics) and Elizabeth Goodfellow (drums, percussion) allow their instruments to loosely disperse and converge around the luscious melodies. It reminds very much of the world-building in the previously mentioned Nier Automata: definable human structures overtaken by the bloom and decay of nature, merging together into novel and surreal shapes. Holter designed many of the songs’ foundations, only to funnel the unique skills and musical qualities of her collaborators to their full potential.

On Something In The Room She Moves‘ resplendent title track, the music briefly falls silent around the three and a half minute mark; Speed’s stunning saxophone interlude – riffing on the main vocal melody – seems to come out of nowhere, resuscitating the song into an even grander swell of affection. It feels like the kind of moment no person can actively plan or prepare for. And once it arrives, it’s damn hard to maintain a dry eye. Love can be shattering indeed. Alternately, Holter basks in a more guileless, quizzical state of love. Opening song “Sun Girl” – like “Evening Mood” – starts up like some kind of divine alarm clock, as Holter allows her subconsciousness to inform her distinct lyrical transmutations. And again, it’s essentially two versions of the same song posing as one composition – the first act dwindling in a whimsical chorus of piccolo flutes, while the second half flares up into an incandescent dreamscape of synths.

With its fluorescent, quivering cadence, “Spinning” acts like the gravitational center of Something In The Room She Moves, forging an endless loop of rapturous becoming. “Meyou” meanwhile is a spine-chilling vocal meditation featuring Ramona Gonzalez (Nite Jewel), Jessika Kenney, Maia, and Mia Doi Todd. Each vocalist repeats the song’s title, sometimes harmonising with someone else, sometimes slipping free in a swooping and exuberant delight. Singing together is a sacred act as old as the dawn of mankind, before music was lumped as something meant for the prying eyes of an audience. It’s as intimate as anything that could be labeled ‘confessional’. Whether intentional or not, the title “Meyou” does have an embryonic quality – the imagery of two organisms nourishing each other’s anatomy.

Though Holter’s records have been known to challenge and awe listeners through their conceptual literacy and sonic ambition, this album, remarkably enough, never strikes as a challenging listen. These songs elude any sort of clearly defined platitude or truism, revelling in the great unknowing. This is an achingly human journey into the vast mischievous subconscious, never trying to manipulate how you should feel. It might sound a wee bit far fetched to call Holter’s work political, but Something In The Room She Moves provides a generous, tranquil escape from the binaries of modern living. For an ocean of possibilities awaits.