Some time in 1995 the minimalist composer Steve Reich walked around outside his home in New York City and recorded various noises from around the metropolis: car horns, scraps of conversation, roadway construction. The result of these assorted recordings was City Life
, often considered one of Reich’s most vital late-career compositions despite its doubling back on tape-loop techniques found in his earliest works, 1965’s It’s Gonna Rain
and 1966’s Come Out
. Before City Life
and after it, many artists working in many different traditions and media have tackled the subject of The City--whether it be Reich’s New York, the city as a metaphysical entity, or some unnamed everycity--but Reich’s work seems to me especially pertinent in discussing how we approach these works, among them Julia Holter’s stunning new album, Loud City Song
. This is because City Life
represents the “purest” approach to creatively representing the city, an often hallowed subject among artists and their critics. Reich’s lack of embellishment, the seeming spontaneity of his approach, is often considered the apogee of artistic integrity in chronicling its subject. In this system, to which many of us uncritically subscribe, each creative flourish heaved by the artist onto the unadorned material is a step away from an unspoken goal of legitimacy. Or, as Pauline Kael deadpanned in her scathing takedown of Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film
: “a movie is only a movie if you can pretend it isn’t a movie.”
Loud City Song
arrives not as a rejection of any particular ethos, not as the New Impressionism to Reich’s Realism, but as a refreshingly allusive and mysterious approach to the city--although that city has been transported to Holter’s native L.A., a city with its own set of images, referents, and mythologies. “World,” the album’s gorgeous and enigmatic opener, typifies her approach to the city. Through a series of disconnected images--“all the hats of the world,” including the one under which the city can’t see Holter’s eyes; “a singer on the fifth floor” that might be the artist herself--and an achingly gorgeous backing arrangement for piano and strings, Holter seems to summate the whole of the city through its constituent parts, a lyrical synecdoche of Los Angeles. There are no ostentatious displays of gritty realism here--no subway rattles, no piercing sirens--but we’re exposed regardless to what feels like the reality
of the city, captured in an oblique manner that nonetheless seems to make manifest the process of losing yourself in the immense crowds of buildings and people that make up a city.
Of course, this entire analysis is predicated upon Holter’s, and Reich’s, apparent desire to “recreate” the city through music, a desire that may or may not exist. To frame Loud City Song
as some sort of replica would be to do it a disservice. Instead, it uses the city as a foundation to launch into a myriad of other subjects, as last year’s similarly brilliant Ekstasis
used Plotinus’s conception of “being outside oneself.” “Horns Surrounding Me,” an atypically intense track on an otherwise subdued album, finds itself in the head of a celebrity; the titular “horns” refer to the paparazzi from which she runs away. The point here is not to lend empathy to our oh-so-troubled superstars (Julia Holter: the Drake of modern art pop?), but rather to examine the unique ontological predicament we, the watchers, the paparazzi, put them in. Just as Ekstasis
discussed the sensation of being outside oneself, so too does “Horns Surrounding Me,” which realizes that the celebrity as we perceive them and the celebrity as they are
are two very different entities; when your whole life is being recorded, surely a casting off of the Self is entailed. The same, then, for living in a city, which must require on the part of the city-dweller an absorption into its manic energy. Whereas Ekstasis
was all about the personal ecstasy of being outside oneself, Loud City Song
is about that same process made a social phenomenon.
What makes this album such a galvanizing experience, however, is not its philosophical padding but how effectively it embodies this disembodiment. The stunning cover of Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” (1963) that serves as Loud City Song
’s centerpiece illustrates this most effectively. Reinventing the soul hit as a ghostly drone of strings and reverberating vocals, Holter manages to transform the track’s sentiment, as well. In it I hear the transience that marks modern city life--the sense that we are all
strangers, each one of us interrupting each other’s lives for moments only, before fading back into, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “the constant flicker of men and women and machines”. I am reminded of my walks up Broadway in New York City, peeking into hotel lobbies and drugstores, filled with the sense that something is happening in these places
, and that, even though I am not privy to it, I can still feel these places’s warmth radiate toward me. “It seems like a mighty long time,” Julia Holter whisper-sings, and I can feel that time stretch out in front of me.
The power of Loud City Song
, then, lies not in the concepts upon which it deliberates, nor even the means through which it deliberates upon them, but rather how it translates these heady notions of the individual vs. the social, the Idea of the city, etc. into warm and loving compositions that first and foremost feel real
. This idea, that the “unreal” can speak to us in ways more meaningful than even the “real”--that a florid album like Loud City Song
can impart to us a truth that even its naturalist counterpart, City Life
, cannot--has been in vogue ever since Claude Monet decided to whip up his Impression, Sunrise
(1872) using loose brushstrokes en plein air
(and before that, even; Hegel articulated this concept in his lectures on art). That said, I don’t want to necessarily favor one system of representation over another. All I want to convey is that this album is the sound of an excellent singer, songwriter, arranger, and, I’d argue, thinker translating those strengths into some of the most stirring music you’ll hear this year. Loud City Song
may not be loud, but the echo it makes is unforgettable.