Wistful, But Tethered
Though Julianna Barwick’s newest album, Will, shares many characteristics with her previous works- like 2013’s Nepenthe and 2011’s The Magic Place, Will seems more grounded in reality. Instead of being left with visions of a white room filled with colored mist (her music really is that amorphous), we’re transported to forests and churches and to abandoned gas stations in middle America.
Barwick is known for her transcendent, orchestral works and ethereal soundscapes, and this style is very prominent in Will but it’s also clear that everything in life, Barwick’s music is ever-changing. She likes to have her music mimic lonely, almost haunted spaces, which clearly has a large impact on the work. The music soars but it is also moody but overall it’s almost effervescent. Barwick, who has always been infatuated with great acoustics- empty concert halls, warehouses, etc.- is very set on creating a similar landscape for her listeners. She has been known to work on her albums in isolated places for this reason. In Nepenthe‘s case, Iceland’s Reykjavík lent an otherworldly and almost mythic quality to the album. Alternatively, Will was composed in many places (Barwick was touring during its production). It is almost as if each location she worked in makes an appearance in the music; Will is much more textured than her last album.
Will begins with the appropriately atmospheric “St. Apolonia.” Her vocals soar, but they are also layered in a complex, and very pleasing way. The soundscape created is one to get lost in- it’s almost hypnotic. However, “St. Apolonia” sounds very much like an introduction. Barwick writes like the ocean moves- with Will, she begins with the water receding. It rushes up to meet us in the next track, “Nebula,” which incorporates synth arpeggios and a heavy bass- a welcome addition. “St. Apolonia,” though beautiful, is very much on the soprano end of the spectrum. “Nebula” has a very strict structure, as it has an underlying arpeggiating theme, but it is also as overwhelming and formless as any of Barwick’s work has ever been. She manages to compose sweeping, technically proficient pieces (like “Nebula”) while also fashioning a world for us, one we can slip into with ease.
The transitions between “Nebula,” “Bleached,” and the almost world-music-influenced “Same” are absolutely flawless. This album really is a cohesive unit and her transitions make it all the more pleasant to listen to. It is hard to distinguish each piece from one another initially, though each could be removed from its context and stand alone with ease. However, once one begins pay close attention, the melodies and themes roll and shift like the tides. The tracks that follow are all just as stunning: “Big Hollow,” the sixth song on Will, features an almost frozen moment of music that eventually culminates in traditional piano and a quiet theme. The tragic “Heading Home,” leads us into the darker corner of the wood and back out again, unscathed, but all too aware of its dangers. Then, finally, Will ends the way it should- softly and sweetly. It tapers off into space, the kind of empty, echo-y space that Barwick loves.