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Julianna Barwick, ‘Nepenthe’ – Album Review

Dead Oceans

An press email about Julianna Barwick’s new album ‘Nepenthe’ claims that single ‘One Half’ contains her first-ever definitive lyrics. Interestingly, she’s managed to wait until her third album of vocal-loop-based music to try out some words.

Ironically, Barwick traveled to Iceland to record with Alex Somers, the boyfriend and collaborator of Jonsi, whose group, Sigur Ros, is known for unintelligible lyrics. Before ‘Nepanthe,’ it would have been a stretch to compare Barwick and Jonsi for anything other than the lack of meaning in their vocals, but now, Barwick is limitless in where she can take her art. Sounding like Sigur Ros might just be the first step.

From the choir on ‘The Harbinger’ to the strings that appear throughout, Barwick isn’t drifting more traditional. Rather, she’s using the traditional to expand her creativity. ‘Pyrrhic’ goes on to showcase Sommers’ involvement, as it contains this sounds that come straight from Sigur Ros. But while these alien baby noises instantly evoke that band, Barwick doesn’t come across as derivative. In fact, the mix of the familiar with Barwick’s very unique aesthetic makes for the best kind of experience, one that doesn’t push the listener into the pool but carries them in on the music’s back. By ‘Forever,’ you’re in the deep end, where nothing is holding you up, and it is your choice whether to float, sink or swim.

But those clear words, “I guess I was asleep that night, was waiting for” are the cleanest words ever sung, words you never knew you wanted or needed until you hear them. There’s been some question regarding whether Julianna Barwick is a novelty, but by making ‘Nepanthe’ her most ambitious and most rewarding album yet, she’s established herself as more than a buzzy artist getting attention for fringe music. She’s become a star, someone whose next move will always be more exciting than her last.

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