Julianna Barwick turns the grottiest clubs into cathedrals, with her weightless washes of indefinite tone, her spectrally altered choral elements, her slow moving angelic ecstasies. She fills the darkest spaces with pure white light. Nepenthe, her third full-length, she works and reworks a downward cascade of notes, in massed vocals that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. It’s a motif that first floats by during “The Harbinger,” but which repeats later the album (in “Labyrinthine”, for instance),” falling endlessly in a suspended grace.
Nepenthe, in mythological terms, is an elixir for forgetting, but Barwick’s work seems to turn more on memory, the textures she employs evoking church music, children’s choirs and the gauzy scrims of daydreams. There are recognizable elements – piano, cello and violin, for instance – but seen only through the fog of more idealized sounds. In “Look Into Your Own Mind” a sustained, clarinet-like sound pierces the silence for nearly a minute, picking up friction with the throb of low cello. There’s an aura of the celestial, not just time-less but outside of time itself, in many of these tracks, as they blossom and fade without reference to meter or melodic development.
Mostly Barwick’s compositions drift by in dreamy indefinition, but once or twice, they coalesce into living, breathing songs. The first of these is “One Half,” where Barwick’s voice takes on an unaccustomed grit and grain, a real person’s texture, though she is doubled by more denatured female singing sounds.
Barwick worked with Sigur Ros producer Alex Somers for Nepenthe and recorded it with local musicians in Iceland. Members of Amiina, who often play strings for Sigur Ros, sat in, lending a warm, organic undertone to these ethereal compositions. Barwick’s mother flew in to sing on the record. So, the chill and scale and natural beauty of Iceland crept into Nepenthe’s slow moving, preternaturally beautiful songs.
The album is gorgeous, almost an abstraction of what musical loveliness could be. If moves on its own terms, from track to track, without quite resolving into separate songs. If it sounds, once in a while, like Enya, a little too beautiful to focus on, perhaps it’s our fault as listeners. Nepenthe glides effortlessly, without ugliness or difficulty, but that doesn’t make it frivolous.
DOWNLOAD: “One Half” “Labyrinthine”