Previous Julianna Barwick records have consisted of near ambient songpieces constructed from multi-layered vocal loops and include collaborations with Ikue Mori, Helado Negro and Pandatone. For the luxurious Nepenthe, Barwick decamped from Brooklyn to record in Iceland, at the invitation of Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers.
Her previous album, 2011’s The Magic Place, exhibited a clear kinship with Sigur Rós’ soaring sound paintings, the massed artificial choir pushing towards the heavens. Now she’s gone straight to the source, recording in the band’s studio and working with many of the same musicians, including string sextet Amiina.
It would be turning a blind eye not to state that the result is very, very close to Sigur Rós themselves. Somers, who also partners the band’s Jónsi Birgisson in the duo Jónsi & Alex, has absorbed the band’s distinctive techniques through his work with them and replicates elements of their sound faithfully throughout Nepenthe. At its most blatant, the stately piano of Barwick’s The Harbinger is a dead ringer for Sigur Rós’ ubiquitous Hoppípolla.
Barwick does bring other factors into play, however, from keening shoegaze to her hymning, holy choirs. Only rarely does she pull into focus with recognisable lyrics, as on the beautiful sorrow of One Half. Instead, the authorial presence is rather detached, resulting in timeless, impersonal laments like Labyrinthine that seem to have floated out of an echoing mountainside chapel straight onto the master tape. Barwick herself fades to invisibility.
Nepenthe is a lush suite that stirs deep emotions effortlessly, a balm that will soothe a lot of ears, connecting despite its studied impersonality. Julianna Barwick, meanwhile, remains an enigma.