Review: Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

Initial listens to The Magic Place brought to mind Grouper’s Liz Harris, whose vocal adopts a similar phantom ethereality. But while Grouper’s music feels rather murky and aquatic, channeling the haunts of placid night-time lakes, Julianna Barwick’s voice appears to soar between the beams of cathedrals and churches and glide across the walls, forming convective loops of melody that fill the space with a homely, spiritual warmth.

Each of these tracks is essentially born out of a single idea that repeats throughout, swelling gradually with soft chants and choral vowels. Other instruments enter to add timbral variety, but never push Barwick’s voice out of central role – piano, bass and synthesized strings are modest accompaniments, gently emitting harmonies and root notes that run quietly alongside and never interfere. “Prizewinning” is perhaps the only exception, introducing snare rolls and a quick pulse of organ. I wasn’t convinced at first; the rhythmic element takes a rather brash and upfront position compared to the reverberant, virtually tempo-less styling of The Magic Place elsewhere, but I’ve come to welcome the contrast with subsequent plays.

While the quality throughout The Magic Place is consistently strong, “Bob In Your Gait” is a finest moment in amongst these nine tracks and probably the one I return to most frequently. It’s also perhaps the most immediate of the pieces, carrying the fading, floaty remains of a pop melody; piano drips a memorable ostinato over the top and Julianna’s vocal follows this verbatim, with the “aahs” of harmony embracing from either side.

The record provides a more intimate experience than I initially expected. It’s strange how a record that places such vast distance between listener and artist can be so deeply stirring – while the sound sources here may dissolve into the faint echoes that the listener is left with, the heart and soul within The Magic Place remains entirely intact and beautifully vivid.