Julianna Barwick is an experimental composer and vocalist whose music invites metaphorical comparisons to grandiose landscapes and natural phenomena. Indeed, her press sheet alludes to “thick fog rolling over desolate mountains” and a “late afternoon thunderstorm.” But before I’d even reviewed the accompanying press materials for Will (Dead Oceans), my mind had already connected its calming, ambient sounds to my recent tour of Norway’s fjords; Barwick had me thinking of myths and fairytales, with spritely creatures emerging from their hiding places to sing hymns into the canyons. Barwick’s textured, orchestral sound is sweeping yet unobtrusive, a pleasant soundtrack for a daydream, or in this case, writing a record review.
Though Will is also described as a “surprising left turn” from her last record, Nepenthe, I didn’t find the stylistic shift to be that dramatic. Barwick’s vocals remain front and center, layered to choral effect and coupled with minimalistic instrumental arrangements. The most notable difference is the increased reliance on synths to create her atmospheric backdrops, a move inspired by Barwick’s experience demoing a sequencer for Moog during last year’s FORM Festival. Listening to a record like this, where one track washes into the next, I wondered whether I’d find a moment like the ones I’ve had listening to Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, when something hinting at a riff or repetition of chords would grab my ear and snap me from an otherwise intoxicating and thoroughly enjoyable lull. On Apollo, that happens at track five, the epochal “An Ending (Ascent),” and on Will it arrived by way of a few strokes of piano midway through the album, on the stellar “Big Hollow.” Penultimate track “Someway” is another high mark, featuring backing vocals from fellow Brooklyn artist Thomas Arsenault of Mas Ysa. And the album closes big, with the accelerating, percussion-driven “See, Know.”
Barwick produced Will herself from locales including a remote home in upstate New York; the Moog Factory in Asheville, North Carolina; and Lisbon, Portugal, where she reportedly recorded some late-night vocals at a train underpass. Overall, it’s another strong and cohesive performance, one that bears repeated listening to catch the nuances contained in these sweeping soundscapes.