Immersive but occasionally listless effort from seasoned ambient artist
Louisiana-born Julianna Barwick’s music can at times sound alien, foreign or otherworldly, but she relies heavily on just about the most human-sounding instrument there is: her voice. Barwick is a seasoned producer with a discography stretching across three decades. In that time, she’s discovered countless ways to distort and manipulate her vocals, sometimes relying entirely on her singing to construct fully-fledged songs. On 2020’s Healing is a Miracle, Barwick doesn’t change much of the instrumentation that has worked so well for her over the years but she manages to craft a record that, while occasionally listless, surrounds and engulfs the listener in an eerie, angelic world.
Barwick grew up singing in church choirs in her home state of Louisiana and this record proves it. The layering of voices and choruses, along with echoey and airy vocal effects, creates the feeling of standing in the middle of a vast cathedral. These vocals are consistent across each track, which Barwick uses to help build her sonic world. Often paired with the angelic vocals are dissonant and occasionally jarring synth elements that add tension to the record’s atmosphere.
On album opener “Inspirit,” Barlow’s voice is manipulated to sound light, soft and airy, almost shimmering above the mix. About halfway through the track, a heavy bass synth enters, cutting in, out and sometimes through the instrumental as it dominates the soundscape. At certain points, however, the track felt lost, not really moving in any discernible direction. “Oh, Memory,” featuring Mary Lattimore, is simpler, relying almost entirely on Barwick’s vocal choruses and an ominous piano riff that carries over the tension from the previous track. The simplicity of the mix is to be appreciated and it makes the glitchy, ghostly synths that come in later all the more interesting.
The album’s titular track opens with a compelling synth round, layering intentionally mistimed synth lines to create a feeling of being stuck or slowed. To complete the mix, Barwick adds her angelic vocals and some violins. While simple, the track is full of longing. The vocals wash over the rest of the mix and are paired with dissonant chords to create this tension.
The song “In Light,” featuring Jónsi, feels like the standout track on the album. It builds unlike any other track on the record and Barwick’s inclusion of a male voice adds some complexity. Shakers, distant-sounding kick drums and what sounds like a distorted clopping sound are mixed together seamlessly to form a unique percussive arrangement. At six minutes long, it’s the longest track on the album, but it doesn’t feel long at all, a testament to Barwick’s ability to drive the song forward.
The next track, “Safe,” is reminiscent of the opening track in that it sounds gorgeous but occasionally meanders into tangents or stays in one place for too long. “Safe” does a lot of things well: the vocals are particularly gorgeous and the chords create a well-defined melancholy feeling. But other than a grandiose swell in the middle of the track, it wasn’t particularly interesting.
If Barwick plays it safe on “Safe,” then she certainly steps outside her comfort zone on the next track “Flowers.” Barwick deserves credit for how creatively she manipulates the volume of the harsh synths on this track; she brings them up and down until they become blasted and distorted. Just as the track finally seems to be reaching a climax, the entire mix cuts out and the song ends, immediately transitioning into the next track, “Wishing Well.” That track begins with a minimalist mix featuring only Barwick’s looped vocal harmonies. The song is particularly calming and serene, yet also imbues a feeling of loneliness. Barwick manipulates her voice to create a somber, wailing effect that sounds like it is calling to someone. The effect is a track that feels meditative and spiritual.
On album closer “Nod,” featuring Nosaj Thing, she pairs her standard looped vocal harmonies with some ominous bass synths that sit perfectly at the periphery of the soundscape. What sounds like a distorted, detuned trumpet produces a wailing effect and some distant, dulled kicks and rim shots are the final piece of the mix. With each repetition of the trumpet riff, the track builds and swells, culminating in a beautiful, stripped back denouement featuring only Barwick’s vocals and a violin melody. The conclusion could have and should have been longer.
Barwick shows clear mastery of her voice on Healing is a Miracle. The vocal choruses are angelic and ethereal, and she distorts her voice creatively to produce vocal riffs and foreign-sounding accompaniments. The vocals are very muddled and there are also various points across the album that feel boring and listless, but despite these flaws, Barwick has crafted a gorgeous, fully-formed world that brings the listener on a sometimes tense, sometimes calming journey.