Julianna Barwick’s 2013 album Nepenthe was a lot like its title: a healing salve, a soft buffer against the constant thrashing of the outside world. Part of that buffer was created by physical space: Barwick recorded the album during the winter in Reykjavík, Iceland, an oft-cited fact which imbued its creation story with a sort of mythology. Albums created in isolated spaces often come with a nostalgic idea of artistry: that the artist in question needed to enter a pure space in which to create their art, where "the real world" wouldn’t intervene. (See: Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago; Zola Jesus’s 2014 album Taiga.)
Nepenthe’s follow-up, Will, (out today) revitalizes the well-worn idea of self-imposed isolation as artistic inspiration. It wasn’t made in just one mystical location, but several. A press release claims the album was recorded everywhere from "a desolate house in upstate New York to the Moog Factory in Asheville, North Carolina, to Lisbon, Portugal."
Minimal orchestral compositions and wordless phrases
The idea of space, and not just physical location, has always been important to Barwick. Her music, minimal orchestral compositions and wordless phrases looped and filtered through various effects, have a meditative quality. Much of the discussion surrounding her music focuses on a listener’s ability to get lost in it — Nepenthe was "transcendent," "uncontained," and "the aural equivalent of a plane ride through a cloud." This is true for Will, too — it is, at times, weightless and meandering — but Will is more interested in a physical, earthly space than some of Barwick’s past work. From start to finish the album feels like a self-contained real world — it’s more church than heaven. Will is an album that’s easy to get lost in, not because it lacks a center, but because it’s not interested in sharing space with the outside world. Even the album’s song titles, like "Wist," "Same," and "Nebula," are small and unobtrusive.
Will opens with "St. Apolonia," a song that sounds like an introduction, distinct from the rest of the album. While much of Will relies on minimal vocals and ambient effects, "St. Apolonia" sounds like a hymn: Barwick’s voice is looped over windy background noise before strings pile on, like a spiritual caterwaul. From there, the album moves quickly, because of its tendency to lull the listener into a hypnotic state. "Nebula" features a carefully pulsing organ layered beneath breathy harmonies. "Beached" is silken and edgeless, not much more than a cloudy piano. Will isn’t the kind of album that will stick with you, and that’s not a bad thing; songs come in and slip out with little fanfare, like a meditative chant simply meant to ease the weight of a single moment.
Because of this fluidity, Will is hard to contextualize musically. It doesn’t sound entirely current (there are no big hooks, or beats, or disco influences) but it doesn’t sound comfortable in the past either. Barwick might be on the same plane as artists like Grouper, whose 2014 album Ruins is a collection of small noises, or a composer like Philip Glass. Song pairings like the "Heading Home" and "Someway" sound like part of a symphony, sliding into each other with patient, echoey movements.
Will’s lack of stickiness is partially exemplified by the way her collaborators, usually easily recognizable, fade into the album’s background. Electronic musician Thomas Arsenault, who records as Mas Ysa, and Jamie Ingalls, the drummer of Chairlift, both contributed to the LP. Their influence is seamless here; there’s no way to pick out Arsenault’s moody keys or an Ingalls drum beat. But their subtle presence is only further proof of Barwick’s style: her music has a blanketing quality, fully absorbing anything that comes into its fold.
Her music has a blanketing quality, fully absorbing anything that comes into its fold
Will is entering a musical landscape where often the most talked-about albums are the ones that leave an impact on a listener, but Barwick doesn’t need to break a streaming record or have a list of big-name guest spots. Albums like Drake’s Views and Beyoncé's Lemonade will serve as permanent souvenirs of the spring of 2016, but Will won’t get stuck in its listeners’ collective memory in the same way. We’re on the cusp of summer, and the days are slowly growing warmer and more humid, but Will would sound the same in a different context, 10 months from now. It’s content to just sit in its own little world forever, floating around and blending into whatever background suits it.