Julia Holter‘s Ekstasis is difficult to categorize. An experimental, ambient pop record inspired by mythology, its unusual sound and lyrical narratives perhaps make its best contemporary companion Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Often very pretty, just as often very strange, Holter has crafted an album that reflects her unique vision, though it fails to captivate the whole way through.
Holter describes her approach to creating Ekstasis as being based around “open ear decisions: what seemed to sound best for that moment”; it seems as if her intuition often called for great restraint. If you subtract the long, more spacious tracks—the gently tinkling piano, extended synth chords, fragile coos—you’re left with a lot less record to go on. As pretty as it can be, a huge portion of the album is devoted to lengthy ambient breakdowns, often drifting in at mid-song. These changes of tempo would be welcome if they were more engaging, but it’s possible to find yourself losing track of the record until the melody resumes.
Those melodies, however, do pull you back in. The gorgeous, harmonic swirl of her vocals achieve an otherworldly grace that’s like little else you’ll hear in indie music. On “Marienbad”, Holter’s voice loops in on itself in increasingly thick layers, the lyrics painting images of gardens and plant life. “In the Same Room” is one of the record’s shortest songs, and possibly the most straightforward pop song, with a catchy keys-and-vox hook. But even that song trails off at the end, capped off by roughly one minute of quiet wandering.
As much as it might damage the mythological vision that Holter is trying to convey, Ekstasis would likely have benefited from some editing. Its highs are undeniably beautiful, but you’re often left waiting for them to arrive for far too long.
Essential Tracks: “In the Same Room” and “Marienbad”