Julianna Barwick has built a career on maximising the potential of a minimal set-up. Over the course of three albums, Barwick has explored the potential of her voice as an instrument, using layered loops of indecipherable lyrics drenched in reverb, supported only by the slightest touches of instrumentation – somewhere between Grouper, Stars Of The Lid and Enya. Her music is basically lo-fi ambient in construction, but its expansive scope transforms it into the most lavish, New Age soundscapes. Fourth album Will is a comparatively adventurous release for Barwick, as those touches of instrumentation become prominent features alongside her self-made choral vocals.
Or to put it another way: Will is almost a post-rock album, as the addition of synths and electronic textures conjures echoes of Sigur Ros and Hammock. While Barwick still sings like an ecstatically-serene Lisa Gerrard, there’s a sense that the process has changed: previous material was centred on those vocal loops, with adorning flourishes adding texture, but Will seems to use those sounds as its centre of gravity. Closer ‘See Know’ is a brash synth arpeggio, zig-zagging around a crashing drum loop, barely featuring Barwick’s vocals, while ‘Same’ is a lush string arrangement that sees Barwick sharing vocal duties with Mas Ysa’s Thomas Arsenault.
It’s not a huge departure –tracks like ‘Beached’ are unmistakably the work of Barwick – but in the context of her career these slight shifts feel seismic. Barwick’s music has always felt intimate and comforting, even at its most opulent, due to its sense of rapt stillness. But Will flirts with a place in the wider world – there’s plenty of moments where it feels more universal than personal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a line between reaching an audience and pandering to one. Will is just idiosyncratic enough to avoid the pitfalls of post-rock’s saccharine earnestness: piano chords don’t follow expected patterns, the synth tones are slightly ugly, and the lyrics remain undecipherable.
What Will does struggle with is disguising its own construction; Barwick’s music relies on technology to exist – the loops, the production effects, the different instruments; this is computer music. It’s an obvious statement, but on Barwick’s prior material the presence of the modern world has never felt noticeable – there’s a pastoral timelessness to albums such as The Magic Place and Nepenthe in their organic sounds and self-contained worlds. Will is different. It is deliberately experimental in its sounds, and while that highlights Barwick’s tremendous talents as a composer and arranger, it also breaks the spell cast by her ethereal textures. If those albums were the work of an improbable magician, Will is the sleight-of-hand trick being caught by vigilant eyes.
But it doesn’t detract from how good it actually sounds. Will is a strong album from a talent who, four albums in, shouldn’t be recycling ideas. There’s plenty of highlights, such as the mournfully euphoric strings of ‘Same’ and the undulating organ melody at the core of ‘Nebula.’ Barwick could pursue a myriad of directions based on the ideas suggested on Will and they would all work; it’s simply selfish to want her to not venture far from home territory.