Back in March, critics in the know were going a little bit nuts over Julianna Barwick’s 7-inch Pacing, a piano-led, vocally-looped dream of a song that wove strands of Erik Satie and Brian Eno, wordless song and minimal musicianship into a surprisingly exalted and exhilarating whole. It was a lovely moment, a transitory shot of lucidity, and it left us wanting more.
Nepenthe doesn’t exactly pick up from where Pacing left off. Barwick is an artist so intuitively influenced by her surroundings, and her recordings have such tangible immediacy, that it was never going to be as simple as that. Immediacy, in fact, is her raison d’etre – she has stated that she never writes prior to her recording, a technique that gives her work a flushed, neonate vitality.
Two things happened in the period directly preceding the recording of Nepenthe that were evidently important in the formation of the end product. Firstly, Barwick suffered family bereavement. Secondly, she decided to record the album in Iceland, in Sigur Ros producer Alex Somers’ studio.
The first of these facts sets the elemental, often cathartic tone of the album. The second imbues it with a sense of place and a sense of growth. The penetrating, multi-tracked voice in opener Offing is both sadder and more uplifting than any of her previous work. Harbinger begins shrouded in dark, breathy scrapes which are soon supplanted by a gentle revelation of soft piano chords. These and soaring, wordless vocals recall the Sigur Ros album () – albeit a feminised version, slowly thawing into grace and self-identification seemingly at odds with the track’s title. It is one of many highlights. Another, One Half, is the only track with distinct lyrics, and it shares some ground with Julia Holter or the icier reaches of the Cocteau Twins.
Forever grows and shimmers in a similar way to Harbinger – the aural equivalent of emerging from a tunnel into a bright underground cavern. On Crystal Lake a shaky, uncertain piano shares space with upwardly spiralling vocals, backed with bleeps and blips. The combination is resonant and otherworldly.
Barwick’s previous album, The Magic Place, saw her contend with her past: childhood, family, safety and home It was joyous and innocent. Nepenthe is the other end of the passage – the real world, with all its difficulty, its unexpectedness and ultimately its sense of release. The result is more enigmatic and multi-faceted than anything she has released before. In ancient Greece, Nepenthe was a cure for sorrow, and while there is still a degree of sadness here, there is also a great deal of beauty and hope.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Album Stream (via Deezer)
Nepenthe is released via Dead Oceans Aug 15th