Review: Julianna Barwick's Will

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The idea of Julianna Barwick “going digital” seemed worrying at first. Her first two albums, The Magic Place and Nepenthe, work in part because of how appealingly organic they sound. Though she layers and processes her voice to no end, these records feel raw, earthy, crafted from leaves and stones. It’s nice to find out on her third album Will that synths are the perfect fit for her choral ambient style. The arsenal of pads and sequencers she employs breathe fresh life into her sound and indicate a promising future path for her already enviable discography.

Four of Will’s nine tracks feature synthesizers, and—except for the extremely irritating coda “See, Know”, which sounds like a fire alarm and is about as fun to listen to—they’re the best tracks on the album. “Wist”, in which Barwick’s voice takes a bath in a murky pool of filters, is one of the prettiest and most mysterious things she’s ever done. On “Same” she seamlessly weaves her voice into a sawtooth synth drone. And the Tim Hecker-ish “Nebula” uses sequencers far better than “See, Know”, gradually upping the tension by subtly tweaking the central synth sound. Once the initial shock of hearing synths paired with Barwick’s voice dissipates, their presence feels natural. It’s surprising she’s never used them before.

The rest of the tracks dabble in a more minimal style than is usual for her. Normally, Barwick’s voice dominates the arrangements, with sparse instruments adding flavor. Will flips this dynamic. Here, her voice seems to hover behind the piano and strings in the foreground. She’s barely audible on “Beached,” and on “Heading Home,” she doesn’t come in for a full minute and a half. There seem to be fewer layers of her voice as well; on intro “St. Apolonia”, there are at most two of her at any given time. This is her first fully self-produced album, so it makes sense she’d devote more attention to the instruments now that she has more control over them.

These tracks aren’t bad, though they lack the textural intricacy that made The Magic Place and Nepenthe so compelling. Still, it’s disappointing they take up such a minority of the runtime given how bold and successful the synth tracks are. Furthermore, the distinct division between two sounds here makes Will a rockier listen than her past albums, which succeeded in no small part due to their ability to maintain a consistent mood over nine or ten tracks. There’s not really one pervasive atmosphere on Will, except perhaps one of vague sadness.

It’s understandable that Barwick wouldn’t want to do a total 180 into electronic territory. But that probably would have yielded a superior album. Rather, Will is a wobbly baby step from a well-honed sound to something greater. There’s not much reason to listen to it over any of her other albums, and it’s less interesting for the music it contains than the music it promises. Will we ever get an all-electronic extravaganza from Barwick? It seems likely. I wouldn’t complain if she kept dishing out variations on her first two albums for her whole career, but she’s teased us tantalizingly with her new gadgets, and I’m curious to see what else she can do with them.

The possibilities certainly aren’t limited to the ground she’s covered here. I’d like to hear how she might sound with some phasers on her voice, even a bit of Auto-Tune or vocoder. Even some beats might be nice. And “See, Know” and “Nebula” certainly aren’t the best sequencer tracks she could make. But it’s a shame we’ll have to wait so long to find out what she does next. Barwick’s an album-every-three-years kind of gal, and Will is hardly a satisfying stopgap release. In fact, it’s hard to see it as anything but transitional. C PLUS