Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
That Julianna Barwick recorded Nepenthe in Iceland with Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers makes it almost too easy to draw comparisons between her music and that famed Icelandic group, especially because both artists create the sort of music that’s invariably described as “ethereal” and “crystalline.” And though Somers certainly gives Nepenthe the grandiose, otherworldly sheen of Sigur Rós’ most epic work, Barwick has put together something altogether different here. See, whereas that band carries the burden of the post-rock label, what with their atmospherics tempered by guitar symphonics and classical arrangements, Barwick uses the fragility and gorgeousness of her music as an end to itself, leaning on something more akin to New Age. Cooing, distant loops of harmonies hover like a choir of angels, while piano and barely intelligible vocals slide into the mix and dissipate just as quickly. Of course, this is the sort of thing that Barwick showed off on her last album, The Magic Place, too, but the scope is so much larger here, even as the emotional content grows more intimate. Inspired by personal tragedy and the isolation that comes with exiling yourself to Iceland in the winter, Nepenthe works through pain and loss in a surprisingly positive manner, acknowledging loneliness and anxiety without succumbing to anything like bleakness. I could rattle off signifiers for each of the songs here—the ebb and flow of early highlight “The Harbinger,” the string swells on “Pyrrhic,” the almost-pop melody of the icy “One Half”—yet really Nepenthe functions as one long, ever-shifting piece, which is its biggest strength as well as its biggest weakness. Meditative music such as this often requires extended compositions to get its point across, and certainly this album rewards close listening, becoming more soothing the more attention paid to it. Yet, when listening, it’s hard not to wish that Barwick changed up her approach a little more often from song to song. While regularly transportive, her minimalist, breezy soundscape lacks the strong melodic core of, say, Eno’s Ambient 1/Music For Airports, which means that the record can feel a little too transient at times, and, really, an extra element or instrument here and there could do the album good, actually illuminating its themes. Still, though that might be a dealbreaker for some listeners, it mostly feels like nitpicking since Barwick accomplishes her goals so well here. Nepenthe‘s title refers to an ancient, mythical anti-depressant, and just as that implies, this is ambient music as mental recuperation, a relieving dream after a terrible day.