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Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe

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Artist: Julianna Barwick

Album: Nepenthe

Label: Dead Oceans

Review date: Aug. 26, 2013

Julianna Barwick belongs to a relatively recent strand of singer-songwriters, such as Liz Harris of Grouper fame, who dissolve the foundations of song form, so that the resultant creations become mere captions of vaporous, half-formed melody and ambiguous sentiment. In Barwick’s case, there are hints of words and lyrics, but these are drowned in icy layers of fragile textures and further refracted by multi-layering, transforming her airy alto into a gossamer web of interlocking voices. It’s hard to tell what exactly is being deployed on Nepenthe, beyond this emotionally-charged, looped choir, but the effect is to create a form of song that aims right for the heart, as if Barwick is trying to transfer her own emotions straight into her listeners.

The problem is that these emotions never really settle into a coherent transmission. The general tone is one of profound melancholia (Barwick’s grandmother passed away during the sessions) and the album’s title refers to a mythical drug the ancient Greeks believed could relieve sorrow, but the tracks are layered in curtains of static drone that can sometimes suffocate whatever it is that Barwick is trying to convey. Where Grouper sounds like an introverted, hazy-minded folk singer locked in her own mind, feeling her way around memories and impressions (especially on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill), Nepenthe merely conveys a sense of abstract emotion, the listener blocked out by the fabric of the tunes themselves.

The other main description of Nepenthe is that it could be viewed in places as a reflection of the landscape of Iceland, where the album was recorded under the guidance of Alex Somers, known for his association with Sigur Rós. Indeed, the emotional overload on Nepenthe feels similar to that band’s highly-strung take on rock music. But it’s hard not to think that the album could have been more potent if it had been approached in a more restrained and intimate context. As it is, the album feels like “I Swear There Was Somebody Here” by David Crosby (from his immense If I Could Only Remember My Name) rehashed to death and amplified to the point of cloying noise. There is beauty on Nepenthe, but it’s altogether too clean and self-regarding to pack much of a punch.

By Joseph Burnett

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