Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Healing Is a Miracle: Album review

The first time I heard Julianna Barwick’s music, it sounded like a film score, something Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog might use. It seemed untethered, as if her layered, wordless choral harmonies needed a visual to anchor them. But then I heard her again, in a more relaxed frame of mind, and the sound slowly expanded in my head. Depending on the kind of music you’re into, Barwick’s ambient mosaics might remind you of Brian Eno or Cocteau Twins, Arvo Pärt or Enya. Her method is simple: using a digital pedal to record and create vocal loops, which are layered into a dense but wispy sound. There are synths and sometimes strings and other voices, but mostly it’s just the multiple echoes of her pristine voice.

Healing Is a Miracle, her fourth album (released on 10 July), is the fullest iteration of her sound. Its judicious electronic touches owe partly to Barwick’s friends, producer Alex Somers and Sigur Rós’ Jónsi, gifting her a studio monitor for her birthday. She first used it while recording Inspirit, the opening track. “When I added the bass I really felt it in my body, you know, in a way you just wouldn’t with headphones… I got really excited about making the record in that moment, and I think that really had an impact on the sounds I ended up making," she said. The electronic embellishments—scattered beats on In Light and Nod, the rumbling that closes Flowers—are useful additions, adding some grit and bottom end to her ethereal sound.

Most of the tracks are a wash of synths and Barwick’s voice, often layered five or six deep. This is not music that reaches out to grab you, but the simplicity of its construction has the benefit of making every addition in a song—a new loop, for instance—seem crazily dramatic. The guest spots are unobtrusive and apt—harpist Mary Lattimore on Oh Memory; producer Nosaj Thing on Nod; and Jónsi, patron saint of ambient vocal soundscapes, on In Light.

Healing is a Miracle is, as the title promises, a restorative, uplifting record. Barwick's previous album, Will (2016), was a more fractured sound; this one is closer to the euphoria of 2013’s Nepenthe. You might wonder if you should hear it like a regular album or leave it on in the background. My advice would be to let it find you in the right mood. I’ve heard it while working, while washing dishes, in bed before going to sleep, and it’s a different experience each time. Whether or not you’re in need of healing, Julianna Barwick’s sound is a miracle.

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