Raised in the rustic Louisiana countryside, Julianna Barwick, the daughter of a preacher, had little option but to attend church on a regular basis. She confessed in a recent interview that her family “would always sing a cappella, and instead of instruments would clap or sing in rhythmic rounds.” This LP augments Barwick’s approach to music, her voice moulds and melts into a tranquil ambience, which is delivered in the form of juddering strings, an all-female choir, and a dripping well of sonic elements. An inquisitive child and a self-confessed recluse, Barwick displays a unique sort of intellectuality, enthralled by the mystery of the human voice. A captivation bordering on obsession, Barwick’s main pastime involved harmonizing with unsystematic sounds and dreaming up melodies about the most random of events. Singing was never just confined to the house or the local chapel, Barwick practiced at length, releasing vociferous bullets in vacant openings like neighboring garages and from the highest tree top in the vicinity.
Nepenthe is a result of the darkened days experienced during a detached adolescence, and a release that ultimately seeks splendor in its own discernment. Perhaps Julianna Barwick’s third LP is the perfect companion for a tempestuous, sun-blasted summer’s day. Something that can accompany you while you observe a rather mundane meteorologist reveal the next ecological chastisement that Britain can expect.
The more you listen to, Nepenthe the more you realize that dynamism is most definitely evident, it is rather pretentious to assume that this newborn vitality is simply a form of simulation, an accusation that is completely erroneous. There’s vivacity to Barwick’s approach, she sounds more confident than ever before. The oxidized piano and buoyant impression encapsulated on ‘Crystal Lake’, and the obedient strings of standout track ‘Waving to You’, sound like they were borrowed from the collective genius of Sigur Ros. The sonic facet that Barwick brings to the table seems like a hushed nod towards the Icelandic band. Coincidently or not, Nepenthe was recorded in the Sundlaugin Studio, however; thankfully, the album never once feels like a direct imitation of their work, instead sounding like more of an album steeped in reverence.
It’s very easy to lose yourself in the music that Barwick now delivers at a graceful canter. As clichéd as it may sound, Barwick has come a long way in such a short time. From her inventive 2006 debut Sanguine to the dazzling breakthrough of 2011’s The Magic Place, Barwick has now mastered a process that is at once imaginative and implausibly minimal. The songstress is moving forward here, examining new consistencies and sounds. What this girl can actually do with her voice is astonishing, vocal techniques aside, Barwick has, somewhat auspiciously, been able to pair herself with obsequious sounds, complimenting her in an unprecedented fashion.
Prior to the release of this album, recording sessions were discontinued a number of times due to an illness in the family, and it often feels like Barwick is making a meticulous effort to remove any obscurity that weighs heavy on her mind. Tracks such as ‘Offing’, a delicious creation stroked by the finger of grief, invariably reach towards a level of optimism, however, finally succumb to a profound darkness. Unquestionably, Nepenthe is largely, in principle, lyrically vacant. Nevertheless, through expansive apparitions, Barwick succeeds in creating a sense of sheer immensity and anguish, something I am convinced she intended to do. Although her music has been called “church” appropriate, Nepenthe feels slightly rebellious, a conscientious struggle against the never-ending obstacle course that is life.
The Magic Place might have been the perfect soundtrack to compliment a summer morning spent sipping coffee, but Nepenthe is contrastingly different. An album more suited to the twilight, these tracks perfectly compliment the day’s diminishing light.