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SPIN Essentials

Review: Julianna Barwick Moves Over the Face of the Waters on ‘Will’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 29, 2016
Label: Dead Oceans

Julianna Barwick’s music has never seemed tethered to a specific place, so it’s funny that the celestial Brooklyn artist’s 2011 debut was actually titled The Magic Place, an exceptionally bright nü-age composition that’s greatest asset was its ability to transcend whatever space and time you were currently occupying. Her lovely, intangible sound — featuring Barwick’s aerial, often wordless vocal layerings evaporating into the humidity of the slo-motion soundscapes surrounding them — always feels like it’s hovering just about eight inches off the ground, inviting you to levitate with it.

And 2013’s Nepenthe, a sweeping, more ambitious take on the ideas presented on Place, cemented Barwick’s reputation as a terribly unique artist, and one capable of making the simplest sounds feel truly transportive. So it’s with Will that Barwick finds herself in something of a predicament: Written on tour, Barwick said of her new album, “I knew I’d be playing these songs live, so I wanted some movement.” But how exactly do you move a cloud?

Listening to Will, it’s hard not to think of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and not necessarily because the two both share the same fondness for amorphous textures. Like Ambient Works, Will is largely “beatless,” relying on mood to convey the record’s isolated, at-times eerie impressions. But much like that old jazz adage about “the notes you don’t play,” Barwick is able to shift shapes and and conjure a sort of elemental propulsion because of the beats she doesn’t drop. “Big Hollow” feels almost paralyzed (albeit prettily) until a few spare piano notes and warm bass tones come in and orient everything, revealing the song’s true direction. “Someway” operates similarly, its rising and falling action creating a sedative approximation of a tidal phase. Only closer “See, Know” features an actual drum kit, and it’s almost jarring in how totally unnecessary it feels.

The life of a touring musician is an uncommon and emotionally turbulent one, and listening to Will, it’s not hard to see Barwick’s recent experiences on the road as solitary and lived under cover of night. In lesser hands, the darker undercurrents that streak through these recordings would likely be used to wedge in an unsubtle sense of dread into mix, but there’s always a point of light visible in Barwick’s music, no matter how thick the fog comes rolling in.

The title track’s spookier fringes only enforce how restorative and sanguine the piece actually is, while the almost mournful “Heading Home” is both a lament for the place where you truly belong, and hopeful hymn for the promise of your inevitable return. Despite its nearly weightless presence, Will ultimately is a record about going places, even if it takes its sweet time. Uninterested in either Point A or Point B, Will is happy to just drift about in the in-between.