The title of Julianna Barwick’s previous (second) LP, 2011’s ‘The Magic Place’, referred to a tree on the Louisiana farm where she grew up. It was her place of escape, of refuge – and the album it to some extent inspired was that, too: a collection offering temporary release from the real world, one beautiful wash of sound at a time.
‘The Magic Place’ was a solo endeavour, entirely, as befit its very personal connotations. ‘Nepenthe’, Barwick’s first album for the Dead Oceans label, is named after an ancient Greek anti-depressant, a “drug of forgetfulness”. So it, too, suggests retreat from one set of circumstances to another, rather more relaxed situation.
But everything’s bigger, bolder here – Barwick’s singing voice has gone from somewhat indiscernible but certainly angelic loops to, during the track ‘One Half’, almost entirely stripped of effects. It’s her, alone, unaccompanied. This is revealing – it denotes a new confidence in the artist, a quality encouraged by working with others for the first time.
For ‘Nepenthe’, Barwick – a Brooklyn resident since leaving the rural surrounds of her childhood – travelled to Iceland to work with Alex Somers, one-half of Jónsi & Alex and the designer of several Sigur Rós’ album sleeves. Anyone who has heard ‘Riceboy Sleeps’, the album that Jónsi & Alex put out in 2009, will know how gorgeous the duo’s music can be – and, sure enough, Somers brings out additional facets of beauty in Barwick’s already enchanting arrangements.
Opener ‘Offing’ doesn’t rush to leave an impression, its presence slight, airy even for an artist like Barwick, whose compositions can at times serve as definitive examples of what qualifies as ethereal music. ‘The Harbinger’ brings in deeper, darker textures, somewhat more sombre tones beneath those multi-layered vocal loops. The track doesn’t lack for accomplished allure, though – it’s piece that can, and does, swallow the senses whole.
The wider dynamics of ‘The Harbinger’ – strings, by Icelandic ensemble Amiina, are evident, so too a choir’s contribution – are echoed again in ‘Pyrrhic’ and ‘Forever’. The first finds Amiina delivering some menacing, scratchy strings beside one of Barwick’s more star-chasing vocal lines, while the latter turns itself inside out as it spins a yearning loop towards the realms of infinity, only the presence of other vocalists anchoring it, keeping it earthbound.
‘Waving To You’ closes the set with the lightest of kisses: barely there at all, yet lasting nonetheless. A special album from a special artist, ‘Nepenthe’ is, indeed, an album that leaves thoughts of others absent as it plays out its otherworldly dance.
Words: Mike Diver
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