JULIANNA BARWICK’s fourth studio album compliments the ache of human loss and the plague of memory. Nepenthe was used to quell sorrow with forgetfulness; an ancient medicine that has found its way in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven: “Quaff, oh quaff this kind Nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!” Grief can quickly turn to bitterness but JULIANNA BARWICK’s album is nothing but delicate and refined.
Nepenthe follows her 2011 album, The Magic Place, which Pitchfork and BBC Music both featured in their top albums list of the same year. Her ambient and wordless harmonies have been compared to SIGUR RÓS; both deliberately use the human voice as an instrument. It seems only natural that Nepenthe was produced by Alex Somers (SIGUR RÓS and Jónsi), which features the band, AMIINA, a group that has worked with SIGUR ROS in the past. Produced in Iceland, the album also features a choir of teenage girls who respond as ebb to the flow of reverberated loops.
The entire album is like resisting the call of unseen sirens. Inevitable and entrancing, you are Odysseus strapped to the mast, curious as to what song lures men to their deaths but unable to answer the ache that crawls in your chest. I would concede that JULIANNA BARWICK was herself a siren if it were not for my exhaled sighs above land instead of underwater.
Each track off of Nepenthe is a purposeful stroke of pathos that leaves me in wonder. The delicate simplicity of each piece is transcendent and beautiful. Only one-track features lyrics, One Half , the rest are all floating paragons of reverence. Pyrrhic is what I imagine a fallen sailor would feel as they were dragged to the bottom of the ocean, aware of their doomed fate but enchanted by the song surrounding them.
While this album manages to submerge the listener, you do not drown. Nepenthe will crawl in between your ribs and ripple out a never-ending source of respect and amazement for JULIANNA BARWICK.