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Julianna Barwick
Nepenthe


3.5
great

Review

by DadKungFu STAFF
April 25th, 2018 | 10 replies


Release Date: 2013 | Tracklist


Julianna Barwick has been crafting her ambient soundscapes for some time now. Inspired by the soaring, sacramental nature of her high school church choir, rooted in freeform vocal experimentation, her choral, exuberant Ambient music draws from her deep affinity to reverb and harmony, the echoing space of a cathedral or an abandoned rail tunnel. Produced with Sigur Ros veteran Alex Somers, Nepenthe, her third full length solo album, carries with it the same kind of blissful exuberance that permeates the Icelandic band at its most joyous, but by curbing experimentation and ambition in favor of facile prettiness and palatability, it falls slightly short of the classic status of Agaetis Byrjun or Takk.

In turns stark and lush, minimalist and baroque, the music of Nepenthe isn’t theoretically complex by any means. The actual sounds of the album are drawn mostly from Julianna’s voice, layered and re-layered to create an ethereal, choral effect, for the most part lovely and affecting, impaired by an occasional tendency to slide into New-Age corniness that reminisces of Enya’s more unfortunate moments. It’s Ambient with Pop sensibilities, simple chord progressions, angelic choral loops and warm, intimate sensibilities, all wrapped in easily digestible 3 to 6 minute pieces, reaching for transcendence through layer upon layer of timbre and aesthetic rather than complexity or depth. Julianna works with what sounds right to her, rather than from theory, building her songs from a single vocal sample into an ornate, multilayered expression of elegantly simple melody.

Brian Eno, perhaps the originator and main advocate of Ambient music, intended it to be “as ignorable as it is interesting”. By writing her music within the framework of Pop convention; the songs are more structured and focused than typical Ambient, as such Nepenthe seems to demand the listener’s attention more than the archetypal Ambient album, certainly more than Barwick’s earlier release The Magic Place, which was a rather more spacious, freewheeling affair. This greater sense of structure works both for and against Nepenthe at times. The music is undoubtedly pretty, Julianna has a gorgeous voice and the sparse piano, synth and horn arrangements are well placed and more than effective at accenting the vocal soundscape that Julianna is creating, but in imbuing that Pop framework into the music the songs have a way of insisting upon themselves during their relatively brief runtime in a way that ultimately makes them light and inconsequential. Nowhere is this more evident than on the one track with actual lyrics, “One Half” in which Julianna repeats a simplistic three line refrain in a repetitive ascending scale surrounded by a children’s choir, delicate strings and minimalist percussion. It’s pretty, hauntingly so, but like the rest of the album the question remains: is it really saying anything?



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user ratings (147)
3.8
excellent


Comments:Add a Comment 
DadKungFu
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2018


4703 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

First review that's not entirely positive and tbh I feel like a dick

zaruyache
April 26th 2018


27331 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

Rules tho.

JS19
April 26th 2018


7777 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I think this is her best tho

zaruyache
April 27th 2018


27331 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

Mmmhmmm. Heavenly.

brandontaylor
May 6th 2018


1228 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

i understand the criticisms but i dont agree- i love this and the sound she's cultivated on her last 3 albums is just perfect to me

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
May 6th 2018


27365 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

“one half” could make me cry

budgie
June 19th 2019


34965 Comments


very nice

hel9000
July 18th 2020


1525 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

such a gorgeous album. One Half and Pyrrhic are stunning.

MiguelAngel
July 31st 2020


82 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Another Brian Eno evangelical believer! Why everything has to end up with the same secular idiotic remarks?! Why can´t you separate yourself from that leftist bias and just enjoy music without comparing it... Specially with stupid post-modernist crap. Surprise, but not everything was influenced by Eno!

dedex
Staff Reviewer
March 31st 2022


12774 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

leftist bias lmao



on another note, this is gorgeous



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