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Nepenthe

Julianna Barwick - 2013

When you first hear a description of Nepenthe - an album that is essentially one woman's voice, overdubbed, looped and drenched in reverb; that it was recorded in an Icelandic studio space (Sundlaugin) that was once a sunken swimming pool - you would think that this would lead to some wonderfully ambient music that would guide you to into a soft sonic state of weightlessness. Although those qualities do exist in Julianna Barwick's third album, overall there is something more to these tracks that lend a gravitas to her fantastically, graceful and rather gigantic approach to her multi-layered recordings. In the depths of all the reverb there is a story being told - a description of an emotion. As only one track carries with it lyrics ('One Half'), Barwick, throughout Nepenthe sets up a scene with emotional content and allows us, the listeners, to then imagine the story from which the feeling originated from. The wonderful aspect to this, is that every time we listen to the album, that story can change as each different day creatively molds our imagination to reflect our reaction to moods. It's this elegance of being allowed to make of each song, what you so desire that makes Nepenthe such a glorious offering. The recipe for each track is much the same but somehow the album bears no hallmark of ever being repetitive. One section - one harmonic sequence - is looped over and over with differing parts within each section being defined by various, drenched and dense vocal melody lines or choruses. Sometimes these sections are put on top of each other or simply give way to the other. The instrumentation that backs Barwick is subtle and kind at face value, but in private, deeply entrenched in emotional and musical content. Strings and piano are the rather obvious but necessary partners of Barwick. Other more delicate tones are chosen, though what they are exactly is rather out of reach of explanation (although, if I was to find out that wine glasses filled with various levels of water were not used then I would be flabbergasted). Some of the more poignant moments in the album that work to sheer perfection arrive when Barwick's voices are lowered in the mix or indeed cut out completely and all that is left is the clear intention of the other instruments - they themselves coming across as so simple and delicate compared to the ethereal sea of voices. 'Harbinger', with its piano work exploring singular lines at first and then expressing heavily blanketed sounding blocked chords, is a wonderful example of this. Indeed, most of the piano work on Nepenthe sounds as though it was recorded in slow motion under pillows galore. Although ambient in its overall tone, Nepenthe is not just a blank musical book of write your own gorgeous fairy tales. The emotional quality does indeed change although variation is at a premium. Easily, the stand out track on the album is Pyrrhic and it is in this track we are musically caged to a sense of desperation and loneliness as the track opens up to us. Though a tonality change in the opening chord in the phrase hints at a second section every now and then, and even a glimmer of hope, overall the song is an upsetting ghost story of sorts - redemption always somewhat close enough but never in reach. It is also in this song that we hear the wonderful range of Barwick's reverb drenched voice. We can hear her effortless, sustained tones as a soprano and at the same time, her moody and moving interactions with the soprano lines in her deep alto emotional excavations. Nepenthe is a wonderful musical experience that goes beyond the ambient classification it is sure to find itself in. Although the tracks themselves lack in major diversity, overall it's lack of guidance via lyrical content allows it to be an always changing escape from what your headphones are used to supplying to you.

Posted by Andrew Scott

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Posted: 09/23/2014