Wrapping one’s head around Julianna Barwick’s music is a tricky sort of thing. As a primarily vocal artist, looping reverb-heavy layers of her own, wordless voice over one another in elegant, otherworldly sheets, Barwick doesn’t make music closely resembling much in pop music. But there’s an organic, weightless quality that certainly sets her apart from most electronic-based ambient artists. In a recent Q&A with Julianna Barwick that I conducted, she even confessed she wasn’t quite sure where exactly her music comfortably fit. In fact, its spacious, strangely ghostly yet beautiful sound even suggests a transmission from a place that terrestrial beings haven’t seen nor visited.
While Barwick’s music may not be easily understood at first listen, it is, nonetheless, a highly enjoyable sort of vertigo. Her music is euphoric, joyous and gorgeous to the point of either weeping or hallucination, based on the context under which it’s heard. On her 2009 EP, Florine, Barwick crafted 25 minutes of blissful ambience with little more than her own pipes. And with The Magic Place, her first true full-length, the Brooklyn-based artist doesn’t make drastic changes in her approach, but the album does contain more instrumentation than her past works, incorporating pianos, synth and even percussion. However, everything added here is merely a subtle embellishment in the service of Barwick’s angelic vocals.
The degree of instrumentation on The Magic Place is, certainly, vastly expanded, Barwick allowing in a broader range of accompaniment in this round. Yet that accompaniment is often very delicate or restrained. On “White Flag,” a mesmerizing standout for which lyrics play a more prominent role, the warm buzz of organ can be heard just bubbling underneath the varied layers of Julianna. Similarly, opening track “Envelop” introduces ethereal, yet bassy synthesizer midway through the song, an immediately imperceptible but nonetheless essential addition to a gravity-defying composition.
Toward the latter half of the album, the shape of the compositions begin to metamorphose, softly and serenely drifting from ethereal patterns into more playful and flexible constructions. “Vow” opens not with Barwick’s own singing, but rather with a melodic and upbeat piano loop, one that is soon joined by a soothing and beautiful touch of accordion. Similarly, “Bob In Your Gait” starts off with guitar, gently laying a foundation upon which more snowflake-delicate piano sprinkles and prances. Most surprising of all is “Prizewinning,” built upon a rhythmic, pulsing bassline before ultimately allowing the stomp and clatter of percussion to make a profound and dramatic entrance.
That music built mostly on vocals can leave one speechless is Julianna Barwick’s great irony, but also a testament to the powerful and unique music she creates. The title of The Magic Place is a fitting tag for the world she builds through these 9 tracks. She invites the listener to a special place that’s far away and unfamiliar, distant from expectations and prejudices. It’s beautiful and strange, but it’s comforting. In a word, magic.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.