Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe

Let’s get this out of the way straight from the start – Julianna Barwick has just released the most hauntingly beautiful record of 2013 so far. Nepenthe is the follow up to her critically acclaimed 2011 album Magic Places and is an absolute delight from start to finish, a celestial wash of sound that beguiles and captivates.

The decision to decamp to Iceland to record with Alex Somers from Riceboy Sleeps has been vindicated – whereas Magic Places relied almost exclusively on Barwick’s heavily processed vocal loops and chants to weave its spell, Nepenthe incorporates subtly aching strings and ambient sonic textures to add further colour to her wordless, beautiful songs.

There are guest contributions from members of Múm and Amiina, and the influence of some of Iceland’s finest musicians has changed Barwick’s music in a way that feels like a natural progression from the Magic Places album, without relinquishing the essence of what made that record so unique.
Fans of Sigur Ros, Riceboy Sleeps and Julia Holter will relish the solemn, ethereal grace of tracks like ‘Offing’ and ‘Look Into Your Own Mind’.  ‘The Harbinger’ features a gorgeous looping vocal melody underpinned by a pretty piano motif that ebbs and flows like a half remembered dream.

‘Pyrrhic’ is darker; low, rumbling cello notes and sinister vocal samples drag the listener from the sweet bliss of the opening tracks. ‘One Half’ features an actual discernible lyric but it’s no less lovely for this nod to a more conventional song-writing approach and there are echoes of Elizabeth Fraser and the 80s Goth dream-pop pioneers The Cocteau Twins on the very lovely ‘Forever’.
There is always a danger with a record like this that it could fall into the wishy washy New Age bracket – Barwick avoids this pitfall by investing genuine depth and emotion into these affecting compositions. The title of the album is taken from ancient Greek literature – Nepenthe was a medicine for sorrow, a “drug of forgetfulness”.

It’s an aptly chosen title for an album that envelops the listener in the sweetest melancholy, a soundtrack to the slow drift into narcotic bliss. Nepenthe is magic and loss, wonder and sorrow and it continues to enchant long after the final notes have died away.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)