Though she now calls Brooklyn home, Julianna Barwick’s musical upbringing in the churches of rural Missouri plays a large part in the sound of Nepenthe, the ambient composer’s third full-length album. The mood could best be described as ecclesiastical; the songs’ titles appropriately vague but approximating a tortured grandeur. Barwick’s voice could have entire volumes devoted to the transmutation and ascension it performs on Nepenthe. As with The Magic Place, Barwick’s vocals handle the brunt of the sonic load on Nepenthe, often without being distinguishable as the human voice. But Nepenthe is more severely overpowering than The Magic Place, especially with its prominent featuring of strings and piano; a heavenly flood compared to the previous album’s rain in the jungle.
Barwick’s music is, as always, most easily approached through the lens of other ambient infiltrations into the pop world – don’t expect any classical chords from an old spinet at some piano stores Los Angeles. Indeed, the song “One Half”, with its uncharacteristically distinguishable lyrics and dreamy swoon of strings, sounds almost like it could fit into the tempered refrain of a Sigur Ros anthem. Barwick, however, performs none of the post-rock hat tips that have been normalized by many of her ambient contemporaries. Her music sounds like it comes from a more patient and isolated perspective.
The spiritual hums that close off “Crystal Lake” feel like an opening into Barwick’s experience attending mass and singing in a choir, as opposed to a deliberate appropriation of a capella church music. The difference is that Barwick’s songs sound like a natural extension of form rather than deliberate experimentation. Barwick’s songs build organically, as though sounds are thrown against a wooden wall over and over, bouncing back each time with more of an echo and more aural weight.
Songs like “Pyrrhic” and “The Harbinger” suggest a melancholy underpinning to Nepenthe, whereas other tracks like “Adventurer in the Family” are far more tuned in to their own earthy extravagance and sound almost uplifting by contrast. Whatever emotion is expressed on Nepenthe seems almost subliminal, as the album tends towards the kind of wide, engulfing orchestration that renders certain meanings unextractable. Nepenthe is wayward and indirect but so sonically powerful that you might think you’ve appropriated form and meaning in spurts of premature realization. Truly, this is an album best left to long, afternoon steeps and repeated headphone contemplation.