[sic] Magazine

Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe

Those that somehow missed Julianna Barwick ‘s wonderful The Magic Place in 2011 are very likely to cause a stampede rushing to dish out superlatives for its follow-up Nepenthe – an album worthy of high praise, but one that is just a little too reliant on Barwick’s vocal wow factor, something which will no doubt enrapture afresh many a newcomer all the same.

Nepenthe (a potion designed to induce selective amnesia) nevertheless arrives shrouded by a death in Barwick’s family and her choice of titles this time around – both tracks and album – clearly show her raw sorrow, existential self-questioning and sense of outright loss. Nepenthe then is a collection of necessarily reflective songs with sombre pacing, Barwick shifting her focus from ambient ethereality to neo-classical angelics in the process.

Personally invited to escape and record in Iceland by Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers and featuring string contributions from Amiina , as well as the full scope of a teenage choir, she and the frosty, elemental landscape immediately make for ideal bedfellows, Barwick frontloading the LP with her most emotional statements before disappearing into the more generally ambient and experimental.

That vocal of hers – looped and layered beyond recognition and lost somewhere between choral cooing and reverbed instrumentation – is given a workout straight from the off, her backing choir windblown from some crystalline ice-floe situated between dream and sleep, reverence and transcendence swelling to fill the ears and heart to their capacity. “The Harbinger” then adds minimal piano and Amiina’s strings to the supremely beautiful mix, while “Pyrrhic” wallows in extremely tearful cello until Jónsi no less guests in a passage of harmonies to balance the strings and vocal parts.

Barwick saves her most discernible vocal to date for “One Half”, helping to anchor the album in very human terms when all else is so intangible. Too much of this and she might risk compromising her magic, but in moderation it works wonders and that is the key to Barwick’s success. Though seemingly celestial music of the spheres, it’s such subtleties that set her and the serene atmospherics of contemporaries like Liz Harris of Grouper apart. If heaven were discerning enough to have either piped through every cloud then it its goody-goody aesthetic would be all that more appealing.

Advised downloads: “The Harbinger” and “Pyrrhic”.

~Nepenthe is released August 19th 2013 on Dead Oceans .~