Album Review: Julianna Barwick—”Nepenthe”

nepentheBy Ayla Shiblaq

“I would sing to myself and get so lost in it that I would cry,” says Louisiana-born Julianna Barwick in an interview with Pitchfork just weeks before the release of her third full-length album, Nepenthe. This statement perfectly exemplifies the feeling the listener encounters in any of Barwick’s works. Her minimalistic instrumentals allow her angelic voice to shine throughout the album, making it easy to get lost in its beauty.

The Magic Place, Barwick’s debut on Asthmatic Kitty records, acted as a take-off point in her career with her departure from her original lo-fi style into one with a refined sound. Nepenthe acts as the full mastering of Barwick’s sound, encapsulating her organic sounds with emotion and beauty.

Written while Barwick was grieving over a death in the family, Nepenthe’s theme is one of loss and healing. Nepenthe, Greek for “grief-banishing” and a drug mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as a remedy for grief, is a word that best captures the theme that is presented throughout the album.

The album opens with “Offing,” a grim beginning to the album. However, this style is still familiar with many of Barwick’s listeners as it acts, intentionally or not, as a continuation from her previous album. “Flown” off of The Magic Place was written for Barwick’s best friend after the death of her sister. The song sounds like an ending just as it does a new beginning with its tonal build-ups and its eventual disintegration towards the end. This technique is comparable to how “Offing” is styled. It acts as the perfect opener to set the tone of grief evident throughout the rest of the album.

“One Half” is the standout on this album, being the first song Barwick sings with actual lyrics. The lyrics are completely improvised, sticking to Barwick’s organic style in her recording philosophy. The song’s lyrics mean no particular thing at all and its interpretation is completely dependent on its listener. To those not accustomed to the ambient style, this song is one that will peak their interest.

Some highlights of Nepenthe include the stunning string accompaniment in “The Harbinger” and “Pyrrhic”, one of Barwick’s darkest pieces.

Nepenthe was a great risk for Barwick, since she has never worked with anyone in the studio before. When asked by Alex Somers, a Sigur Rós collaborator, Barwick was quick to respond. She went from recording in her bedroom to working with Somers in Sundlaugin Studio. This risk certainly paid off. For those who like Barwick, this album is one that will not disappoint. For those who are not accustomed to ambient’s non-traditional style, this album is one whose beauty remains universal. Where Barwick’s angelic voice acts as the forefront of this record, it is its clear simplicity that triumphs best in Nepenthe.

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