Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe

The human voice is an amazing feature. I don't want to come across as sappy, or end up documenting such history on the topic, but more and more the feeling strikes me: no matter how many records or albums you hear (I'm talking about those which hold vocals in great emphasis of course), there's always that one record - that one distinguishable moment - whereby you not just hear a human voice, you experience it. You feel and embrace it in all its tonal, textural and tense dictation of concept and context. In discussion, we sometimes bring it up through listing our favorite vocalists; if not that, then in reason as to what potentially makes a certain piece of music so decisive and/or powerful as a form of creative freedom and expression. Julianna Barwick can sleep a little easier at night knowing she's struck me recently as one of those types of artists/vocalists whom shares that same inkling feeling concerning the human voice, and more-so the importance it shares when put in composite form. 2011's The Magic Place, while removed itself from the contemporary normality of treating vocals either in direct clarity or stereoscopic distortion, just scuffed its opportunity in being considered a phenomenal record due to its strong emphasis on such an element. In the case of her previous album, Barwick's lack of strong melodies and complacent song-writing, while bringing out the most in the artist's tremendous vocal tone - and its application into what felt like some chamber assemble of enshrouding harmony and emotion - I felt came at a cost to her focus on allowing the tracks on that record to develop and integrate further towards a complete, and contextual, whole.

So it's pleasing then to find Barwick's follow-up, Nepenthe, takes such critique into careful consideration - not only proving she can add validity to her toning of vocal ambiance, but outright excels at it when introducing further instrumentation. The album opens with the track Offing which immediately returns to that soloist play in working around Barwick's voice and the multilayer of differing tones and timbres that accompany it. Alongside, there's this part-breezy, part-chilly whistling of ambiance that fades in and out of the mix as well as these very subtle chord changes that integrate quickly yet swiftly into the track's main soothing field and dispersed delivery. True, there's not any real difference in both content and method from what we heard on her previous album, but given the way it both begins the record and feeds into follower The Harbinger, what we later realize is that - as noted - Barwick's state of focus seems to be on the breadth of the entire album as opposed to each individual track on their own. Here, the vocals begin rather more isolated; there's a brief bit in the beginning with this hazy, crackling that tends to give off a vibe of uncertainty and perhaps shyness about this particular track's presence amid this hollowing void of harmony and vocal tone. But soon, Barwick enters the fray in what feels more a weighted and considered degree of expression than previous, perhaps out of emotive tension or physical tension likewise. What we get then, surprisingly, is this gentle-yet-thoughtful lead of piano that begins by nestling into the mix, and then follows dramatically with a more heftier, and striking descent into the track's choral ascents of vocals and light-gleaming synths and strings; its rich, tonal quality (to the piano especially) sounding like an extract of a Hoppípolla demo.
The use of instrumentation thereafter becomes increasingly more about its melodic and harmonic properties, as much as Barwick continues to focus on its tonal and textural qualities. One Half is where she appears to present these two opposing viewpoints almost by contrast one after the other on what is possibly her most pop-like composition of the ten on this album. What begins as this slightly dynamic, distilled air of violins to begin with, the vocals - which here conveys a clearer indication of lyrics and subject matter present, as opposed to a lavish abstraction of context defined by toning - appear a little more withdrawn and ghostly, much like what the previous track appeared to allude to. Already, there's a growing emotive suggestion about how exactly these vocals are treat, and the more distant treatment of sound overall adds a degree of perspective to the music's delivery. It's a great lead-up, in result, to what finally blossoms into a melodic awakening of sweeping strings and piano chords - accompanied all the while by Barwick's shift to a more fleshed-out and human persistence in her voice. 'I guess I was asleep that night/Was waiting far' she professes in this seemingly still half-dazed awareness, alluding likely to the concept of not just sleep, but dreaming as this alternate mode in both sensual and psychological experience. And while I really like what Barwick tends to express here - thus finding myself taking this track in both its methodical aesthetic as well as its musical one - my only grudge with it, is that I feel it ends quite abruptly and doesn't necessarily go far enough in really capitalizing on its provoking take on the concept of dreaming and/or the vibes that might entail.
Look Into Your Own Mind then follows on with a sound that comes across more focal and direct in its intensity. Here, the smoother delivery of electronics and strings, while not as built-up or as vertically reaching as previous tracks, still manages to maintain momentum and consistency of texture within the track's greater breadth of sonic instrumentation. Out of this comes a clearer degree of care and consideration for how far Barwick attempts to portray these sounds; the swelling of low-frequency sounds and the harmonization of her voice as a result emerging from this plain in something of a cinematic manner. The ways in which these elements are layered and presented therefore, gives it a variety of shade and spaciousness, and fortunately doesn't let itself come off as confused or confounded even. As a result, coinciding with the instrumentation's horizontally-arranged manner, I get a strong, sonic-like tundra visage emerging from out the track's stark, isolation and mildly temperate textures. The great thing then about these sounds, as we move onto Pyrrhic, is that Barwick's more open breadth to both the music's intended atmosphere and its artifice of environment and imagery, allows the opportunity for her vocal layering to be treat more as a reflective expression rather than simply that of an emotive one. Here, the sounds tend to allude to that escapist longing for the open air - production making better use of space both in-between layers, and surrounding the entire composition at the same time. But more-so, Barwick's reach and directioning of her voice to me gives the feeling of reaching out personally, perhaps in search or simply in humble curiosity, rather than (as she's presented in previous tracks on both albums) this metaphoric allusion of ascension or transcending said plane to a more anti-material existence.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why Barwick's use of layering and applying such a blurring-of-the-margins approach (especially when deciding wherein these individual components and sounds lay) works more effectively here, is due to the fact that she offers an increasingly more reflective and effective return to nature as that of a human being. No longer do these tracks come across dispersed to some wider, ambiguous part of space, nor do they feel like an attempt to shift to awe-inspire us with some declaration that such unknown and indecipherable plains are impossible to simply reach (or even be understood) in such conventionally physical terms. The music plays out, instead, like it's being inspired by the very fibers Barwick herself is comprised of. That humanity and that collective of thoughts, emotions and expectations - in all its shattered or lucid imagery - is what conjures most strongly on this album. Forever for example, sees Barwick express a lot less clearer or richer of tone, and yet the way she still offers it as this pure, untainted fabric to her being, gives the track's accompanying frosty glow its wakening and cold vulnerability. Even when her presence moves into multi-track phase, the resulting blur of the environment and the density increase of the atmospheric drone still hold, within themselves, that inescapable imagining of the human voice as this fundamental building block to what is a spectacle of a sight, namely being human.
But again, not all of Barwick's attempts at visualizing vocals in this textural carriage, create the same level of conviction and added appeal with the surrounding bloom of musical tone. Adventurer Of The Family, while offering more gestural instrumentation - the low octaves of piano and longer reaches of violins creating an intriguingly close-to-dramatic tension of dynamics and chord progression - it makes the same mistake as previous in leaving the track at its most crucial point. If this were to be compared to a narrative alternative, it comes across like a chapter that neither blends well into the following scene, nor convinces us such ceasing is the result of some dramatic or emotive relay that's come before. So too with Crystal Lake, while the music comes off more cohesive and focused upon its middle-ground, I don't feel the choices made by Barwick in her vocals perfectly reflect the vibes emanating in the music. Ultimately, I find the relatively mild-mannered vibe of the instrumentation isn't reflected as clearly or as intricately and thus the connection between the two fundamental components not only gets tangled, the context and vibes overall get lost amidst it all. Waving To You does end the album on a reassuring high, be it one that offers this now familiarization of richly intense strings atop what is a very open space. And despite its lesser material and lesser extension of the aesthetic and intended vibe, there's still a feeling of escapism in what is a brief but gallant send-off to end the record.
It's rare for a vocalist, in any genre or field, to show little difficulty in capturing the beauty and richness of tone that, visually, it overwhelms me. That's not to say that the increased use of instrumentation isn't the principle reason to why Nepenthe gladly follows, and capitalizes more importantly, on what ideas The Magic Place brought forward. But combining her minimal palette of sound and established maximizing of the human voice in its most richest and soaring of intensities, Julianna Barwick carves then smooths out her sound into a field that projects a rather more substantial, but still soulful weightlessness and sense of liberation from the supposed difficulty of the [physical] World beneath. Where Barwick fails in parts to capitalize on this sound - thus missing out on the opportunity to push her soothing, yet impacting emotion into more contextualized compositions - for the most part we find an artist treating atmospherics more as a catalyst and means to react against. And through this formula of droned pop and ambient instrumentation, the feelings she conjures are of environments free of mass and saturation, just not excessively warming and blissful at the same time. And here is where Barwick better integrates her sound in a way that's both consecutive and evolutionary. For someone clearly rejecting the formal status quo of modesty and lyricism, the lasting benefit is that this treatment gives the alternate sense that vocals - rather than just another source - can, at least here, play the role of keeping us together; in a state of sanity, amidst a stateless void of ambiguity.
~Jordan Helm

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Discovery: Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
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