Will sees Barwick harness her abilities as a composer.
When Julianna Barwick toured with Sigur Ros two years ago, her ethereal sounds and projected oceanic videos seemed like mere atmosphere to help an anxious audience pass the time. But once she hit the stage, Barwick’s talent was obvious, if poorly served by the auditorium environment. But through headphones or otherwise solitary listening, Will, her third album and latest release, does much more justice to the quietly affecting arrangements Barwick is capable of. Compared to her previous album Nepenthe, her latest is more piano-based but no less dreamy. And while Barwick’s vocals are present throughout, they remain indistinct, wordlessly harmonizing with layers of ambient effects.
While Nepenthe saw her pair up with producer Alex Somers (of Jónsi & Alex) to record in Iceland, Barwick takes on writing and producing duties on Will. What is at first most striking here is the extent to which Barwick’s vocals accompany her arrangements rather than stand as the integral base around which synths swell. As ever, her songs are atmospheric combinations of looping effects and vocals, but tracks like “Nebula” are built around repetitive synth lines, with her voice only accenting the swelling electronics. On “Beached,” her voice takes on a drone-like quality. Over a semi-discordant piano, Barwick provides prolonged notes that alternatively blend with the melody and harmonize with it.
That droning ambience features prominently throughout, either derived from looped vocals, organs or synths. It by no means makes Barwick’s songs blend together, but with such minimalist compositions – whose traditional build-ups to crescendo are few and far between – the nine songs on Will are much more affecting in the moment. One gets the sense that Barwick aims to tap a visceral reaction with her ethereal music. To some extent, the fact that many of her songs consist of short, repeated refrains that rarely forge tension by spicing up the composition, suggests that Barwick harnesses emotion through the sheer intangibility of her flowing arrangements. Opener “St. Apolonia” builds itself around samples of subtle waves and wind, intermittent strings as well as her constant, looped vocal. “Same” takes this droning arrangement even further with its strings, but it does have the added vocal harmonies of Mas Ysa’s Thomas Arsenault.
First and foremost, Barwick’s music embraces its abstract nature. This isn’t the kind of music that many people are making these days, and aside from Brian Eno and Grouper, there are few favored comparisons to fellow artists. Barwick doesn’t write lyrics, so her songs don’t favor the pattern of verses and choruses with a climactic drop thrown in for added effect. Will is, in fact, almost devoid of percussion. The notable exception is closing track “See, Know,” which features Jamie Ingalls of Chairlift and is the closest Barwick has ever come to a dance track.
As a progression from Nepenthe, Will sees Barwick harness her abilities as a composer above all else. The instrumental elements are at the forefront of nearly all of these songs. Like any synth or sample, Barwick’s vocal remains another illusory, atmospheric aspect of her wordless arrangements. In discussing Will, Barwick said, “I knew I’d be playing these songs live, so I wanted some movement. Something that had rhythm and low-end.” Perhaps Will doesn’t live up to that teaser as much as Barwick had hoped, but the album remains a successful showcase of her talents, if more suited to intimate settings.