In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
Prior to 2011’s The Magic Place, Julianna Barwick’s magic place was her bedroom. On the shoestring budget of a burgeoning ambient artist without a label home, her earliest releases (2006’s Sanguine and 2009’s Florine) bear all the hallmarks of home-recorded work. These are sleepy, crackly pools of looped vocals—recordings that demonstrate her knack for crafting full-bodied melodies out of nothing more than the human voice and the loneliness of her home studio setup. The Magic Place moved the project out of the bedroom to a rehearsal space and welcomed the addition of other instruments besides her voice.
That trajectory continues on Barwick’s latest effort, Nepenthe, which found her recording even farther from her New York City home and with outside help. After receiving an email from producer Alex Somers (who’s manned the boards for Sigur Rós and the group’s frontman, Jónsi), Barwick decided to record her Dead Oceans debut at his home studio in Iceland. This locale is present upon listening to Nepenthe, most clearly on “Pyrrhic” a particularly soaring track from the first half of the record. Barwick’s more staid tracks have always maintained a surface level similarity to the acts that Somers has produced and recorded with, but “Pyrrhic” draws direct lines. The track opens with string swells and piano arpeggios that would be right at home on any of Sigur Rós’ records from the past few years (perhaps with the exception of this year’s Kveikur) and Barwick’s manipulated moan is a dead ringer for a fair number of Jónsi’s wordless coos.
Though where Sigur Rós would allow the instrumental tension to sink in and sputter over the course of its epics, Barwick continually layers on the vocal parts, rendering the track’s simple strain more and more labyrinthine before she bursts through the clouds around the two minute mark. Barwick’s voice is her consistent weapon, ever serene and even-tempered, but with the prominent addition of cello and piano she’s added another wrinkle to an already emotionally affecting formula.
Barwick has noted in recent interviews that this recording process was particularly trying, both because of Iceland’s relative isolation and because of a death in the family that occurred during the recording process. Both “Pyrrhic” and the whole of Nepenthe reflect those facts. Vocally, Barwick gives performances as captivating as she ever has, and with the added instrumentation and Somers’ practiced touch, she’s turned taxing times into an absolute tearjerker of a record.