It’s the first word that comes to mind after hitting play on Julianna Barwick’s Will, and is what immediately distinguishes the album from past efforts. For an artist who relies mostly on the wordless voice as a springboard for ambient composition, space becomes an ever important element in getting her vision across. “St. Apolonia,” the album’s opener, reveals the setting as a cavernous urban environment, perhaps a tunnel or underpass of sorts, where the ever-so-slight rustlings of human activity is faintly heard beneath Barwick’s signature mantra.
If The Magic Place (2011) and Florine (2009) showcased Barwick’s succinct bedroom lonerism, and Nepenthe (2013) was the slick and seamless band effort (Barwick collaborated with member’s of Múm and Sigór Ros producer Alex Somers), then Will falls somewhere in between. It’s her nomadic record, pieced together with sessions from both urban and rural places in the US along with a city Barwick holds dear to heart: Lisbon, Portugal.
The variety of recording locations makes for a more sporadic record, but Barwick manages to use this looser feel to her advantage. Where Nepenthe‘s songs tended to start from silence and would progress in tightly layered formations of voice and strings, Will‘s pieces often begin and end midstream, with strings, piano and synthesizer playing more predominate roles. The instruments help distinguish the tracks here, whereas in past efforts the cut between songs could feel almost arbitrary, as they tended to meld together.
From Will all the way back to her early releases (some over a decade old now) Barwick has managed to keep her music interesting yet wholly simple, and as of yet hasn’t lost sight of the sound she has built a career around. Her ethos, it seems, is built on a foundation not dissimilar to those ambient pioneers who also saw the voice as central to their expression: Brian Eno, Pandit Pran Nath, Lisa Gerrard and Phillip Glass to name a few.
Although her music harkens to bygone decades Barwick sounds anything but dated. The fact that she has so few like-sounding contemporaries places her not at the mercy of the past, but as a forerunner for the future. The evolution of Barwick’s music sees Will almost as a protest to popular demand, an anti-pop statement whose ambassador turned deeper within herself for the inspiration she sought rather than out into a world of over-saturated noise. In the face of that noise, Will is a breath of clarity.
Will (Dead Oceans, 2016)