Nepenthe is made blue by the cold, a record put through the darkened days of an Icelandic February, and one that ultimately sees beauty in its own numbness. All this makes listening to it now, in the middle of August, a trippy experience. I’ve spent my time using Julianna Barwick’s third album as the soundtrack to a stormy, sun-blasted British summer in which the job of an average meteorologist has been to announce what type of extreme punishment this island is in for next. I don’t think I’ve experienced a mismatch of seasonal cycles this confounding since the release of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion, an album that was released in January 2009 (leaking even earlier, as if by a Christmas miracle), but with swampy heatstroke songs like, well, “Summertime Clothes”. The difference is that you could manipulate Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s warm excavations for your own experience; in the snow, it became a snow album. Nepenthe, on the other hand, doesn’t get displaced. It keeps its shivering hands in its pockets.
Nepenthe is inspired in part by Barwick taking in the frozen scenery around her. She noted taking a long walk alongside the Reykjavik ocean during her stay in Iceland, and the result is a record that stands in thrall of a natural world that never seems to recede. It’s built around an ambient framework that uses Barwick’s voice like it’s as infinite a resource as the ocean; her vocals are layered endlessly, working as different melodic expressions against unmoved pockets of sound, and accompanied by the occasional instrumental flourish – piano chords or string swells that exist as momentary imprints. “Crystal Lake” is comprised of enveloping vocals, hushed for a creaky, eerily recorded piano performance that sounds as distant as Barwick’s vocals, creating the effect of a piece of music that exists outside of its creators. The questions being: who’s playing these instruments? Where is this sound coming from?
Despite her music being heralded as “church”-like, Nepenthe feels uncontained, reacting to the never-ending world outside. “Offing”, the record’s meditative opener, is made from the dichotomizing of two vocal tracks, one overwhelmingly high, the other at Barwick’s standard hum. The song has nothing to bounce off, continuing uninterrupted into the rest of the record’s journey. Barwick’s ongoing scene change – from the bedroom on Sanguine to rehearsal stages on The Magic Place, to now, a studio in a distant country – is practically seamless, but Nepenthe has moments that distinguish its naturalistic environment from those that came before it. This material is married to the sound of Alex Somers, the Sigur Rós-affiliated producer, and as a result has tinges of that particular sense of beauty. It experiences the same brief, momentary lucidity that Takk did; “Pyrrhic” is nightmarish, its choral work piercing and offset by suppressing violins, but at one point an isolated high note establishes itself, illuminating the whole mystery at once. It’s the kind of moment Jónsi is known to pull off, one with a sense of discovery for the darkest corner. “The Harbinger” plays like a latter-day Valtari piece, bringing piano to the forefront of Nepenthe and using it to embellish the song. It cuts through the album’s bitter ambient fog the way the first half of “Varúð” did.
The talking point of Nepenthe is going to be “One Half”, a moment of unabated clarity amongst Barwick’s personal, but ultimately obscured, music. It’s one of the only lyrics she has ever cared for her listener to hear, containing a repeated motif she improvised as a reaction to her surroundings: “I guess I was asleep that night / just waiting for.” For Barwick, it’s a suitably ambiguous way to step into the light. Its resolution is guarded like a secret, and its tension is heightened as a result; “One Half” feeds off a lack of an answer, the strings sharpening as the song continues, the voices below Barwick half repeating the lyric with a renewed sense of rapidity. It dissolves without another thought, the music playing in a loop for a moment as she disappears, and then the record continues onto “Look Into Your Own Mind”, one of its most repetitious stretches.
Despite the surprising decision to suddenly make Nepenthe a first-person story, “One Half” is somewhat indicative of the record as a whole. Barwick has said she doesn’t necessarily identify her music with the genre particulars she is assigned, and “ambient” is certainly an unsatisfying read when you consider the dramatic uplift of her voice. Nepenthe has certain movements that take it out of the “soundscape” territory lived in by more disciplined ambient and drone artists, instead building like it’s coming towards us. Barwick takes time coming into focus; her actions sound remote, at first, quieter and less fulfilled, but it’s the kind of album that creeps up to you, asks for your hand and takes you to a different place entirely. There’s a lot of ambient music out there that acts as an empty canvas to be impressed upon –more than any genre, I think it has the capacity to conjure different experiences and peculiar musical moments, depending on who you ask – but Barwick’s music has a mysterious command to it. For me, it’s endured a whole season unchanged. That says it all: you experience Nepenthe in its own world.