The windows are open and the sunlight is streaming into the kitchen, and the last song on Julia Holter‘s Ekstasis, “This is Ekstasis,” is playing. I’m about to pour myself another cup of coffee, feeling warm, thinking about taking off my cardigan and baring my pale skin to the incipient Scottish spring, thinking that this is an appropriate, or better, serendipitous moment to be writing about this particular record. I was planning to put it off until later, space out, let the adjectives aggregate until then, let the ideas that have not quite yet become words become words. But then, suddenly, there it was, and the words start to come.
I have begun to feel this record as a sort of serendipitous gift, even, on occasion, akin to March sunlight filling the south-facing rooms of my apartment in the early afternoon, at once so wondrous and terrestrial that it makes things coincide with themselves, makes me coincide with my body moving through space or sitting statically at the kitchen table, writing. Is this coinciding, paradoxically, suggested by the word “ekstasis?” Is the only possibility of being outside one’s body actually the point at which body and mind coincide in attentiveness or action? To be outside of oneself, acting without full control but along a line created by some unpredictable balance of memory, intuition, and encountering the world. This balance is realized only in the experimentation of doing, of making sounds or words or movements or colors or lines, some doing that transcends what has been or could ever be learned, which allows one to do this and that and make that begin at some point and this come to an end, or transform, or become a repetition of what it was, transfigured.
I may ask myself, what the hell does balance have to do with ecstasy? Am I really saying that an ecstatic experience is an experience of some sublime balance that is more than the sum of what it’s made of? Maybe. But a balance that cannot exist until someone manifests it in living, in a song, in songing. Julia Holter’s songs may be her approaches toward ekstasis in their making, but they potentially become ours in their finished forms.
“Marienbad,” the song that begins the album, is one whose title I cannot look at or say without thinking three things: Resnais’ film, Last Year at Marienbad, where past, present, and future are indiscernible from one another and a man tries to convince a woman that they met the previous year; Jacques Austerlitz, the center of W.G. Sebald‘s final book, walking with a woman who loves him, but whom he is too broken to properly love, among the gardens and decaying, once opulent hotels of the spa town without recalling that he has been there before, as a child with his mother, prior to being borne away from Prague toward Holland aboard a Kindertransport in 1939; and, finally, a friend with whom I haven’t spoken in years who I met while living in Prague and who used to study in, as it is now called, Mariánské Lázne, and who I was supposed to at some point accompany there to visit a purveyor of fine suspenders. The song may have its roots in recollected images from Last Year at Marienbad, but it is something altogether different, something almost diametrically opposed to Resnais’ film’s austerity of tone and framing, its sharp contrasts of black and white. It is, like the film, a labyrinth, but a beautiful labyrinth, of voices, of one person’s voices, its disorientation one of warm embrace rather than alienation; and it is full of color, the green of the garden, and the domination of a golden light that suffuses the imagery that I associate with Marienbad, and at points threatens to take up and dissolve everything – words, topiaries, paths, Sebald’s grainy, photo-copied images, Resnais’ camera afloat down corridors, memories of a journey that I planned but never made – in its radiance.
Ekstasis is a balance of rhythm and drift, pulsed pop of a parallel dimension, and the sound of the void – part of its singularity lies in the way it moves between these worlds, often within a single song, the beat dropping out and the segmented space giving way to airy expanses, as on “Our Sorrows” or “In the Same Room.” Julia Holter’s previous record, last year’s Tragedy, also navigated the exchange of these territories, giving more space to the spacious, to fields of sound without definitive shape that become songs that in turn return to shifting, amorphous seas of aural texture. It also circles around a central concept, Euripdes – telling of the myth of Hippolytus from 428 B.C., an origin point from which it draws words and masks: Julia Holter as Hippolytus, as Aphrodite, Phaedra or Artemis, but in the end none of them, just versions of herself she couldn’t have conjured without using them as intermediaries.
Is Ekstasis, then, to be taken as a series of different versions of herself, made ecstatic? It is certainly more pop, but not quite like any other music to which the term has been applied. “Goddess Eyes,” which first appeared on Tragedy, reappears here, as “Goddess Eyes II,” longer, more out there, one of the points of keenest luminescence on Ekstasis; shaken from the conceptual context of Tragedy, it takes on the slippery hues of some unattributable modern day grandeur. At the other end of the spectrum, “Für Felix” is a song written for her dog who would soon die. It’s warm and playful, made of long grass and mellow, mellifluous days, almost childlike in its melody but unhinged from the earth by passages of droning strings. Arthur Russell comes to mind with this one, and not just his song about an underappreciated dog named Eli.
There is a great deal of joy filling the songs of Ekstasis, but it feeds on strange strands of life: the unearthly, synthesizer-fashioned melancholy of “Boy in the Moon,” the intuitive releases from structure into realms without gravity in “Our Sorrow,” the spiraling, medievalist psychedelia of “Four Gardens” or “This is Ekstasis.” I don’t fully understand this record and I don’t plan to, but I get something from it that I hope I continue to get for some time to come, a transfusion of life that I recognize as such but which I cannot fully grasp. Perhaps, it is the translation of this life into something that I can make my own that creates those moments of ekstasis, those unforeseen bouts of being just where I am in becoming something not quite yet myself.