Review Summary: Not so much a sound but a place, and a magic one at that
There’s a picture in Rolling Stone that struck me very strongly when I first saw it. It was a screenshot from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a Thai art film that Rolling Stone gave a very positive review, that showed a pure black, apelike ghost with red eyes against a background of jungle brush. A few days after seeing it, my friend Gabe (who operates the Subconscious music blog and has had a major influence on my musical tastes) posted Julianna Barwick’s song “The Magic Place” on his Facebook page. My mind immediately turned to that picture, and I looked it up so I could stare at it as the song rolled by. As the layers of Barwick’s vocals built up and I stared into the ghost’s red, pupilless eyes, I began to lose touch with the real world, and when the strings hit, the background began to move away from me. I was sucked into the ghostworld, and I never wanted to leave.
Barwick’s origin story is common enough to be cliched--she started out as a church singer in a tiny Southern town before deciding she could expand on her familiar church music and celebrate God in her own way. Most of the great gospel singers started out this way, as well as almost all the great soul singers of the ‘60s (at least the Stax/Muscle Shoals ones). But rather than directly praising God and his glory, Barwick chooses to create a grand, spiritual atmosphere and to put the listener face-to-face with the spiritual world. It’s common to hear people talk about how singers sound “alien” or “unearthly,” who don’t sound human, but it’s less common to hear about a singer who doesn’t sound alive, as is the case with Barwick. At times, Barwick sounds like an ancestral spirit drifting across the desert like a warm wind; other times, she sounds like the ghosts of your departed friends and family, come to transport you to heaven on your deathbed. Adding to this disembodied quality is the sparse instrumentation of her work--it’s mostly vocals, with occasional piano, guitar, or even Chinese dulcimer. It’s gaseous, drifting music, and the lack of form is more than made up for by its density and its substance.
But focusing on the music itself, The Magic Place is nearly immaculate in its conception (joke honestly not intended). Barwick’s skill not only as a vocalist but as a manipulator of her own voice is incredible--the multi-layered sound washes she creates are easy to listen to but labyrinthine in their complexity. The amount of instrumentation she uses is exactly right, and were she to use any more or any fewer instruments, the balance would be strongly upset. Everything is tasteful, and while her vocals whoop and shriek and bounce everywhere, there is no showing-off to be found--she sounds subdued, even shy, even at her wildest moments.
Barwick is often pigeonholed as New Age, which is roughly tantamount to calling the Beatles teen pop or Patti Smith punk--accurate to only the most superficial and external degree. However, I can see the potential of this album to bore some less patient listeners. If this album begins to seem tedious, it’s obviously not for you. But try experimenting with your surroundings a bit. Turn the lights off, dim your iPod backlight, take off your clothes. Play the game with the screenshot from Uncle Boonmee (link provided), as I have gotten a number of my friends to do. Fall asleep to this album and dream to it. And if you find Barwick comes to spirit you away to the land of wind and ghosts, you may choose to resist or not. This publication is not liable for any transformations into intangible aether you may experience.