Julianna Barwick – Will (Dead Oceans, 2016)


A sense of development in an artist’s sound is an essential and expected aspect of their career; it’s difficult to maintain that which made someone popular initially across many records without becoming stale, and it seems like with some sense of reluctance Barwick is making the correct estimation that she can’t languish in the same pink drones forever and is taking steps to further her envelope. Such advancement is not unwelcome of course, but the resultant Will bears a slight sense of hesitancy and uncharacteristic decoherence at its fringes.

There’s no denying her roots of course, and plenty of the record’s 9 tracks still hold fast to her characteristic sound and draw upon her voice strongly, the marginal interlude of “Wist” being the prime example perhaps; spinning nothing more than a couple of minutes of light and inoffensive drone and fluidic vocal coos it holds true to the familiarly nostalgic heart of her past works. That being said, album mainstay “Nebula” harkens back to magnum opus The Magic Place the strongest, with its floaty and unintelligible fragments of voice drifting in on repetitive sequences of rotating synth, a constantly shifting mass of suspended thoughts caught in gaseous terseness.

The later duo of “Big Hollow” and “Heading Home” paint a pleasantly quiet and lowly picture in their deeply fragile and sparse evocations; “Big Hollow” in particular is resonantly introspective as it finds some motion only in chips of sparkling piano ice to ease the distant and meagre vocal drones along in all their collapsed and sad beauty. That is before “Heading Home” allows the music to find a bit of emotional strength and resolve, pushing itself into cleansing homeliness on cello drones and thicker tuffets of voice as it staggers back into the light and comfort away from despondency.

The moments where Will differs though are really quite different; the vocal assistance of Thomas Arsenault is called upon in the astonishing “Same” and penultimate piece “Someway” to differing effect. The former is the album highlight, its painterly vista one of gentle sadness wrought of elongate hauntings and downtrodden synths, throwing the two singers together in a search for yearning reconnection as it progresses. The male counterpoint brings a real sense of dynamism to the piece, and a glimpse of symmetrical goal alignment in a way, but when the time for resolution of difference arises in latter “Someway” disharmony seems somehow more entrenched, Arsenault’s voice plateauing badly in the face of Barwick’s more emphatically angelic heights. “Is it gonna be different?” Barwick asks, looking for answers before committing to the future, her personal blurry choir of one hardening behind her before his weak whisperings.

“Beached” embarks on a Grouper reminiscent path ala Ruins in its untethered piano minimalism and silvery vocals; it’s by far the most delicate and beautiful piece as a result of its impossibly hollow melancholia it summons. But it’s in closer “See, Know” that we find ourselves in the uncomfortable and out-of-place unknowns. The synths come to bear at least, breaking free of their drone chains in insistent arpeggiated oscillations that labour intently and endlessly, a strange synth-pop visage cast over proceedings as distal percussion and vocal assistance is buried under its marching gigantism. It’s so peculiar and unexpected that it almost overshadows its repetitive banality, but not quite, resulting in a dramatically off-kilter finalé that leaves the more elegant and poignant moments of the album before it feeling pointless.

The closer in essence feels like a Barwick creation, and I’m not saying it’s something to never be approached again, but the feeling of total isolation and complete irrelevance to the establishing 30 minutes of preceding music is damning. It makes no sense, has no contextual value, and turns the atmosphere to tatters in its wake. As you’d expect the familiar is still as comfortingly excellent as ever, but as Barwick begins to adventurously touch on the edges of new sound things begin to get a little inconsistent; nothing unrecoverable, but awkward enough to make this her weakest effort to date.