Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
Utterly becalming and therapeutic aural balm for the soul from Brooklyn-based singer
Nepenthe, n. a drug or drink, or the plant yielding it, mentioned by ancient writers as having the power to bring forgetfulness of sorrow or trouble.
There will not be a more apt title for an album this year than that of Julianna Barwick’s utterly becalming and therapeutic aural balm for the soul. The Brooklyn-based singer’s transcendent collage of diaphanous vocal loops and choral moments of ecstasy hit you somewhere in the spiritual solar plexus. It’s the sound of a secular ascension into heaven, heavy with portentous lyrical swoops and keys, layer upon layer of rarefied sonic harmonies. Rarely do you hear something so delicate, filled with such fierce emotion. Moments of beatific joy languish alongside detached, ethereal hymns.
Barwick’s voice is almost like an apparition floating, and at points soaring, on this record, lending it a sense of direction but not dominating. She instead gently coaxes the listener into this divine otherworld – a floaty, heavenly Elysian Fields, rich with cooing sirens and soothing wonderment. It’s a sound Barwick has made her own and previously pulled off on her last full-length effort, the similarly bewitching The Magic Place. Here, moved by a death in her family during the recording process, she has taken her craft to another hallowed plain, and wrought some incredibly tender, heartrending moments of sheer corporeal delight out of music that is almost metaphysical – you hear the voice, the sounds, the musicianship but it has a powerful, awestruck resonance that feels somewhere not of this earth. She conjured this celestial atmosphere in Iceland with Alex Somers, Sigur Rós producer and locals (Amiina, múm’s Róbert Sturla Reynisson and a girls’ choir). If anything, there are brief moments where it is almost too delicate and nebulous, but that is a minor quibble. Barwick’s enlightened and supremely elegant album captures the naked emotion of loss and transforms it into an uplifting experience of rare purity.