Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe | Album Review | By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

Julianna Barwick


How to forget.

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Author: on August 14, 2013
Dead Oceans
August 20th, 2013

Nepenthe, the title of Julianna Barwick’s latest offering, seems like an all too logical extension: if 2011’s The Magic Place hinted at an ethereal place of escape, Nepenthe pulls no punches. Naming your album after a drug from the Odyssey that is essentially an anti-depressant (from the Greek “ne,” the negating prefix, and “penthos,” meaning grief or pain, “Nepenthe” literally means “no-grief” or “no-pain”) plasters a bold thesis across the music that is to follow. So, yes, Nepenthe: Barwick should always be commended for her willingness to ditch all pretense. She is a coy maker. I choose my words carefully; I think the juxtaposition between “coy” and “maker” can go a long way to explaining what Barwick manages to capture in her music. On the one hand, I have called her a maker because that is what she does, but more than just making music, she crafts it, assembling it into a structure, layer after layer. Her pieces achieve something remarkable in the pure beauty of her layered vocal graces. On the other hand, I have suggested she is coy, that she hides things in the folds of her music, waiting for you, the listener, to sift through these soundscapes and find the golden key (or, er, the magic place). But, of course, coy is not just being shy, or a matter of veiling, of hiding, it is also an act of making in itself, of putting up the front of being shy or artfully managing your manners. Julianna Barwick is the coy maker of music that envelopes. She creates and builds places to hide, places to ensnare—to allude to one of the song titles on Nepenthe, she creates labyrinths.

I suppose, then, that this is what leaves me somewhat underwhelmed by Nepenthe. Compared to The Magic Place, the walls of this labyrinth are a little wider set and readily climbable, so that one can easily reach the top and peer at the construction in its entirety. So, yes, Nepenthe: the sort of dream-drug, the medicinal release from pain or sorrow, pure escapism. The album might want you to take this sort of trip (oh, connotations, you bastard), but if you can clearly see the work behind what is going on, how effective is the journey? It is like taking the drug only to become entirely aware of the process of the chemicals affecting your brain, and only thinking of that—would such stressful circularity negate the powers of nepenthe? In other words, there are fewer nooks and crannies to get lost in this time around. This, of course, isn’t to suggest Nepenthe lacks in intricacy and beauty; not at all, Barwick is still the Daedalus of her world. In fact, some of the pieces here really take you places, especially the three song continuum of “Pyrrhic,” “Labyrinthine,” and “Forever.” The latter two especially hit wondrous heights: “Labyrinthine” breaks through a monotonous lull of repeated vocal patterns with a short piano interlude before a beautiful, harmonized and layered final section, and the slow-building vocal melody in “Forever” is perhaps the best showcase for Barwick’s otherworldly voice in the entirety of Nepenthe.

So, yes, Nepenthe: fans of Barwick will still find all things lovely as ever here and be satisfied. The layered vocal incantations remain intact with just the hint of orchestration poking through every once and awhile. Barwick’s voice still pierces into the air, still like a siren, and still managing to fit into some mellifluous space between experimental-ambient, choral music, and something else entirely. And the added production flourishes from Sigur Ros producer Alex Somers really gives nice texture to pieces like “Crystal Lake”—although at times the production resembles Sigur Ros’s awfully tedious Valtari a little too much. “Look Into Your Own Mind,” for example, meanders around and never really feels like anything besides a B-version of The Magic Places’s terrific “White Flag.” And yet, and yet, by the end I’m still left pondering whether or not Barwick really captured the atmosphere so obviously set out by the album’s title. If Nepenthe is a drug of forgetfulness that means it is also a drug of hiding, of burying and shifting memory. I’m not entirely sure there are enough places to hide in Nepenthe, that there are enough places to get lost in. To be sure, they’re there, and that means Nepenthe is far from a failure, but perhaps there just aren’t enough. There is a difference between making music of forgetfulness and making forgettable music. In other words, Nepenthe beguiles and not always in a good way. These walls built too small: there is a difference between a placebo and the real thing.

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