Review Summary: It's all Greek to me
You’ve probably all seen the dual theatre masks that typically represent the theatre arts. One face represents comedy, the other tragedy, and they together represent the dichotomy of theatre and the division of genres within. Laugh now, cry later, and hope you enjoy the show. It’s pretty basic imagery, but in discussing Julia Holter’s Tragedy, it’s a good start towards visualizing the soundscape here.
To date, Holter has released three albums; chronologically, it begins with Tragedy, follows up with Ekstasis, and ends with Loud City Song, which was originally to be titled Gigi. All three albums base themselves around the theatre arts, with Loud City Song based on the musical and film Gigi, as well as more primarily Los Angeles as a city, and with Tragedy and Ekstasis following the themes based around Greek mythology. If you’ve followed Holter at all this isn’t exactly far out information; she even packaged the album with a marble-statue-esque exterior.
Tragedy lyrically follows Euripedes’ Hippolytus and instrumentally follows nothing but itself. Among the most fascinating traits of this album is how cohesive and mastered it sounds. Story goes the album was initially spread across several smaller bedroom-recorded EPs, and it never sounds it. Songs coalesce into one another easily, and the themes and atmosphere throughout never drop. More impressively, it never sounds stale. Songs ebb and flow but feel wholly unique and individual from one another, a feat doubly impressive by way of song length. This isn’t entirely a positive, however; songs drone a bit, and if you’re not in the mood for atmosphere and want something accessible there isn’t much to find here. ‘Goddess Eyes’ is fairly approachable, but even then, it’s one of only three songs to be under six minutes, the other two being titled ‘Introduction’ and ‘Interlude’. It’s that sort of album.
Vocally, Holter displays terse-but-appropriately-so lyricism and reverb-laced punches. Her range isn’t particularly on display with Tragedy, but she demonstrates strengths and not weaknesses in this regard, and her voice works better as a sonic element rather than any sort of focal point. The only focal point this album seems to have is the atmosphere, a dream-like haze that her vocals contribute to and never remove from you.
Instrumentally, to describe this album as experimental is generic but apt. Holter is a studied lass and it shows. Ambient atmospheres swirl into a world all its own, noise seems to float about in and out of songs to come back later, and those same vocals inject songs that would drone with a bit more energy. Electroacoustic experimentation is all well and good, but the biggest flaw for the album is likely the fact that Holter’s composition verges on too smart sometimes. It’s an inaccessible album, one that requires the right mindset to appreciate and understand. This is the largest area of subjectivity here. It’s undeniable that skill in composition and songwriting is on display, but whether or not the end result is fun for the listener is entirely up for debate. Her later works merged these experimental ideas with much more pop-approachable song lengths and instrumentation to great success, so those expectations may be poor to have if you're going in just now.
Tragedy is an album that exists in an interesting space. For a debut album, it’s stunning and fascinating, and two albums down the line, it certainly still holds up. There’s a bit of longing to be had here; ambience and atmosphere are undeniable positives, but when the album extends towards the too esoteric you end up losing customers. That really just equates to ‘some people won’t like this’, and considering how expansive music and musical tastes can be, that’s a minute complaint. It’s an album intended for listening on the whole, and this shows with its heart on its sleeve, but if you have the time and patience to make the investment for it, Tragedy becomes anything but. It's a vibrant album made from distant sounds, a dichotomy much like the theatre masks.