Pitchfork Review: Holly Miranda’s ‘Holly Miranda’
In the age of social media and perpetual feed refreshing, releasing new music has become akin to issuing a status update—something that should be done quickly and often, if only to remind everyone you’re still alive. Sure, savvy, big-name artists can use long delays between albums to their promotional advantage, parlaying pent-up anticipation into a major cultural event. But for the typical, blog-buzzed indie-level artist touring the same 200-cap rooms as all the other typical, blog-buzzed indie-level artists, even taking the once-standard 18-month break between releases can be a huge gamble at a time when trends and attention spans seemingly shift overnight.
The story of Holly Miranda, however, betrays the benefits of just letting things happen in due time. The Magician’s Private Library, the Kanye-approved 2010 album that first introduced the Michigan-born, bicoastal-based singer to the world at large, technically wasn’t her debut—she self-released an album in 2004, back when she was an acoustic-strumming open-mic aspirant, and went on to make two records as the singer-guitarist for one-time Brooklyn indie-pop hopes the Jealous Girlfriends. Magician’s, however, clearly marked a major turning point in Miranda’s trajectory, its fantastical fusion of southern ’60s soul and hazy ’80s dream-pop perfectly timed for a moment when acts like Cults and Girls were putting similarly modernist spins on classic pop-song conventions. And in producer Dave Sitek, Miranda had found the perfect conduit between left-field experimentation and MOR accessibility, his maximally minimalist aesthetic so prevalent on the record, you’d think the album was named after his studio. (Alas, it was not.)
But whatever momentum Miranda had acquired with Magician’s would slowly peter out, along with the indie-zeitgeist moment that supported her ascent. In the five years that have passed since the album’s release, all those aforementioned bands have either broken up or drifted to the edges of the cultural conversation; Miranda’s XL contract gave way to crowd-funding pitches; and even her most famous cheerleader’s blog has gone offline. Miranda didn’t exactly disappear, a seeming impossibility when you’ve been romantically involved with everyone’s favorite “L Word” star and joined ScarJo’s supergroup. But her musical output slowed to a trickle, as a crippling bout of writer’s block sent her fleeing from her L.A. home in 2012 to a place that has come to signify rock’n’roll canonization and immortalization: Joshua Tree. Not one to ignore the spiritual significance of such sacred ground, Miranda used the opportunity to get born again. When she sings, “I’ve been tripping so long” on her new album’s opening, new-day-rising anthem “Mark My Words”, she’s not referring to the usual mode of desert-based therapy so much as the protracted process of regaining her proper footing after an extended creative drought.
Like its predecessor, Miranda’s first album in a half decade seeks to balance the earthy with the ethereal. But in contrast to the insular, hermetic environs of The Magician’s Private Library, this new one—produced by Miranda and Florent Barbier, with a one-song assist from Sitek—is all open road, both in its vastness of sound and fresh-start philosophies. (“I know this town could be the death of me,” goes the chorus of “Come On”, its Edge-inspired gallop pushing the L.A. skyline further into the rear view mirror.) It’s a self-titled release, traditional artist shorthand for “this is the real me”—accordingly, throughout these 11 songs, Miranda projects a greater sense of confidence and candor, dispensing with the fantasy imagery of her previous record to cut straight to the heart of the matter by openly addressing matters of the heart.
Miranda was raised in a strict evangelical household, before rejecting the religious dogma that effectively rejected queer kids like herself; she originally wrote the bittersweet, drum-machined lullaby “Pelican Rapids” for the It Gets Better campaign, as a retroactive note of assurance to her teenage closeted self. But when it comes to expressing her distrust of ecclesiastical institutions, Miranda doesn’t feel the need to belabor the point; she’d rather appropriate religion’s fundamental tenet—the belief in and yearning for something greater than yourself—for secular songs of devotion, and infuse them with the gravitas of modern-day hymns. (The omnipresent baritone-sax hum of Maria Eisen—this album’s star player—inches them toward Spiritualized’s brand of celestial soul.) And while the tumble-in-the-grass romp “All I Want Is to Be Your Girl” and the urgent synth-pop of “Whatever You Want” respectively document the idyllic beginnings and bitter end of a relationship between two women, Miranda is more liable to write transcendence-seeking songs—like wedding first-dance candidates “Everlasting” and “The Only One”—that can be applied to all sexualities and identities, implicitly promoting the sort of inclusiveness that religious orthodoxy so often denies.
The result is an album that feels both disarmingly intimate and broadly universal, and Miranda’s voice—fragile and fearless in equal measure—mesmerizes even when the lyrics veer toward non-descript platitudes. But she is occasionally guilty of forcing her hand. The moonlit elegy “Desert Call”—an elaborate reworking of a stripped-down 2013 single recorded with Sitek—boasts the album’s most dramatic, chandelier-rattling performance, but the extended closing chorus of “hallelujah” oversells the weightiness of a song that’s already done much to establish itself as this album’s epic centerpiece. (It also feels like an overly on-the-nose evocation of a song re-popularized by one of Miranda’s biggest influences.) A better measure of Miranda’s re-stoked bravado comes with “Until Now”, slotted into the climactic penultimate-track position, but stripped down to just guitar and piano. Like the nocturnal serenades that fill up the back half of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, it’s a song that gently guides an emotional roller coaster of an album towards its peaceful conclusion. “I never opened my eyes till now,” Miranda sings, before pledging herself to a long-time crush. “You’ve got some kind of sweetness/ Tied up in that string I’ve been tugging on/ But I’m pulling now.” For a lapsed church-goer like her, it’s a moment of spiritual awakening that no preacher could inspire.