Sophomore release from Brooklyn resident and Iceland journeyer Julianna Barwick with the ethereal Nepenthe.
I’ve mentioned on many occasions the fact that to come across an album and know it to be love at first sight is, to me, a difficult notion. Seeds are often sown on the first listen, it’s true, and the relationship grows over time into one where I feel comfortable assigning a high score and a great deal of praise but the fact is this requires time. I didnt recognise Nicholas Sczcepanik’s Please Stop Loving Me as a 10/10 release until months after the fact, the same with Duane Pitre’s Feel Free. It is therefore with great hesitancy that I present Julianna Barwick’s newest Ambient release, and what an astonishing work it is.
It’s namesake “nepenthe”, in no uncertain terms, comes from the Greek word for anti-depressant, a drug used to calm the mind and spirit, to ease pain both mental and physical. It’s easy to see even through opener “Offing” that this was the perfect choice as we bathe in this album’s most potent instrument, Julianna’s voice. Reverbed and frequently distal in sound, it’s difficult to see the point where her soft vocal coos end and the actual drone begins; maybe there is none. It’s a soothing, self-appeasing track, lush and rich in its presentation, like fluffy clouds of sound you could cusp in your hands. It bows out in a shimmering finale into the stunning “The Harbinger”, where thin stutters of static open us before we are reintroduced to the angelic choirs of Julianna’s voice once more, now accompanied by careful piano strokes. Its impeccable crescendo built up carefully over its 6 minute duration shows what impact Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers had upon this album, with its faint Post-Rock vibes. It is perhaps one of the biggest and boldest tracks of the record and surges forward in waves of violin and enthusiastic vocals to usher the darkness out of sight.
But that stunning voice is not always kept locked away; through the drone and reverb clouds it comes forth in “One Half” as she repeats:
I guess I was asleep at night
I was waiting for
There’s no completion as she repeats endlessly over herself, waiting for someone to fill in the rest of the lyrics before ending abruptly, only to be escorted out by the wavering notes of a violin as the drugs kick in again and shepherd us into an uneasy sleep and the aptly titled “Look Into Your Own Mind”. The shaky growl of a guitar drone, slow violin strokes and a radiant electronic note sustain the piece as Barwick’s vocals ease into the mix; it’s a clearly introspective piece but in many ways there is nothing to suggest any animosity or internal fears, only the quake of the guitar has any hint of menace here as her voice drones out and alleviates any doubt and self-loathing, suppressing that little voice in your head.
But this fight, this internal struggle whereby this nepenthe overwhelms the darkness, is not without cost, as suggested in “Pyrrhic”. Suddenly the attitude changes and we’re faced with a much more melancholy attitude, not to mention an increased tempo. Julianna comes out of the minor guitars and piano in these near screams, these sad but hauntingly beautiful bursts of innocence and desire. Nothing highlights this dreamlike state that we’re still trapped inside better than followup “Labyrinthine” though; it circles and cycles endlessly, each turn just another wave on the shores of our mind or another junction in the maze. Pulses of piano assist the swells of sound to just underpin the repetition and beautiful futility of it all.
“Forever” chases up a new sound heralded in the latter days of the album, sounding even higher and more distal than any other, almost crystalline in its free and choral reverb, like shouting from a mountaintop whilst whispering in your ear. Once more the somewhat experimental and organic nature of this album is made known in “Adventurer of the Family”, something that feels akin to a brief interlude with its jittery, arpeggiated acoustic instrumentation and expedient tempo, but no more so than “Crystal Lake”, which starts with gentle and unassuming electronic bleeps and bloops before slipping in some low-fidelity piano. There’s something incredibly downtrodden but similarly yearning and optimistic in its placidity, humming and singing in an almost jovial manner.
Finally, “Waving To You” takes us out of this 40 minute fugue in a surprisingly brief and voice-less fashion, stirring from our drug induced slumber feeling fresher, cleaner and clearer and prepared to leave behind our woes of yesterday as we are lead out by nothing more than the thin drones of a guitar.
I very rarely give such praise to an album that I’ve devoted so few listens to, and I still do retain a certain level of hesitance to apply to this record the highest rating I can give but this is perhaps one of the finest albums I’ve heard in a long while. That someone could produce such beautiful, such emotional, such compelling music with little more than her voice in a non-lyrical way astounds me and I cant help but feel overcome by the vast, fragile scope of this album. I still dont believe in love at first sight, but Julianna is opening my eyes to that possibility.