Everyone may have a voice, but not too many know how to use it to full effect like Julianna Barwick does. Getting across deep emotion and meaning without ever uttering a single word, Barwick finds the sweet spot between the sensual and the sacred in a way that’s never weighed down by New Age-y baggage on her album, The Magic Place. Making something grand out of the tiniest and most subtle of nuances, Barwick creates soundscapes that feel intimate, yet seem almost cosmically vast at the same time. So while it’s hard to find the right words to describe her lyric-less music, that’s not a problem Barwick has in evoking visceral responses, whether it’s raw vulnerability or inner turmoil or aspiring for the sublime and the profound.
It should go without saying that The Magic Place is not the kind of album you cherry-pick individual tracks off of, considering the immersive, all-encompassing musical environment Barwick conjures up. What makes The Magic Place such a compelling listen is that it works on multiple levels, whether you just leave it on in the background and let the looped vocals and the haunting, gossamer instrumentals seep into your consciousness subliminally, or throw yourself headlong into compositions with enough detail and intricacy that they’re definitely worthy of your undivided attention. Without the obvious hooks that come with a verse-chorus-verse structure, Barwick’s music leaves a strong impression by tapping into other sensory experiences in an almost preternatural way. As ambient noise, The Magic Place works like a soundtrack to whatever you’re doing by making the mundane feel wondrous, uplifting and inspiring even when you’re only half listening. At its heart, the album is remarkable for using basic tools—loops of sparse instrumentation and Barwick’s voice—in combinations you haven’t heard before. It’s really that simple when it comes to what draws you into The Magic Place.
If you’re patient enough and give her fragile, exquisite aesthetic a chance, Barwick’s gonna get under your skin and make you dig a little deeper, whether it’s because her haunting music strikes some mystic chord or because of her gifts as a painstaking crafter of sounds. The opening track, “Envelop”, does just what its title advertises, as an introductory number that becomes fully engrossing and sets the tone for an album that’s a uniquely total experience. It evokes a sense of revelation that comes with the best of invocations, as Barwick’s solemn chanting starts out steady, but then flourishes, as a wash of synthesized noise builds just enough in volume and intensity. Often, Barwick’s offerings save the best for last and reward whoever’s in it for the long haul, like on the title track, as a transcendent high-pitched yowl rises up and over the banshee-like harmonizing that sets things up, or on “Cloak”, with a minor-key piano chord that’s poignant in an unvarnished, unadorned way.
If there’s such a thing as a high point on an album that calls for a beginning-to-end listen like The Magic Place does, “White Flag” is it. Like a modern-day indie hymn, the track is the sound of striving for something greater, achieving a resonant soulfulness that’s reminiscent of Animal Collective, just without all the bells and whistles. And it’s only appropriate that “White Flag” reaches its pinnacle when Barwick’s voice pushes itself to do more than it does anywhere else on the album, as her vocals are multi-tracked in a way that she becomes a chorus of one. What “White Flag” also does is get you to focus on all the fine details and subtle twists in Barwick’s songmaking. In turn, you begin to notice more of the small surprises, like how the plucked acoustic bass strings add a nice counterpoint to the tinkling piano keys and Barwick’s echoey siren’s call on “Vow”, or the way the syncopated drumming and yodel-like howls of “Prizewinning” split the difference between post-rock deliberation and Spaghetti Western twang.
So while you’d assume that the soothing, meditative nature of The Magic Place simply makes for easy listening, you’ll be surprised by how intense the album’s journey actually is by the time you make it all the way to the chilled-out, cooled-down coda of “Flown”. Indeed, finding out what you’re really made of and discovering a way to express that process, as Barwick does on The Magic Place, is hard work. Try as you might to explain Julianna Barwick’s incomparable, indescribable music, maybe it’s best to let The Magic Place do all the talking, because the results speak for themselves.