There is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition in which several weeks are spent crafting and then ritualistically destroying a (usually large and complex) sand mandala. Despite the time and attention that goes into the creation, the mandalas are, soon after their completion, dismantled piece by piece, the way one might clean out a refrigerator—except, you know, way more thematic.
Nepenthe is like this. Its edges are not sharp and the feelings it evokes can be washed away. It’s like a sand mandala in sonic form. Rather than stumble and jerk from one track to the next, it tests the listener: “Do you like this sound? How ’bout this one?” Julianna Barwick is content to slide blissfully through an unbreaking tide of sound. It’s like one of those perfect fall days when your body feels as if it’s exactly the same temperature as the air around you, like you’re existing in some kind of temperature-controlled womb. Nepenthe is so uniform, its transitions so glossy, you’ll barely notice the complex tonal shifts and loopings. You’ll barely notice when something changes.
If you’re not listening closely, you’ll probably pause somewhere in the middle of a warmly wrapped choral gem “Forever” and wonder if you’ve just been listening to one song on a loop for the past twenty minutes. This is not a bad thing. Nothing is jarring, nothing particular or peculiar. It’s a stream of consciousness album that flows more than it ebbs and—on first listen— doesn’t give you time take note of its subtleties. The first minute of “The Harbinger” sounds like wind whistling through a screen door; “Labyrinthine” is perpetually distant, until it isn’t, and “Pyrric” is a symphonic warm-up with Barwick’s post-cathedral vocals a barely opaque mist, thick and noticeable, but still untouchable.
Album opener “Offing” is ecclesiastic but cold—a feeling that runs throughout the album—as if the track finally reached a higher point of consciousness only to realize that no one else has. This stark, elevated loneliness reveals itself most nakedly in “One Half,” with Barwick taking on a greater amount of vocal responsibility, her hesitant, breathy musings eye-burning in their solemnity. Nepenthe closes with “Waving To You,” a song whose patiently eclipsing strings sound like they’re going to burst, before mellowing and tapering to a close.
Barwick has produced an album that’s misleadingly at the whim of the listener. It will give you, near exactly, what you put into it. That’s what makes Nepenthe relevant: its masterfully complex compositions come across as simplistic; they’re accessibly intellectual. While Barwick seems to hand over the reins, the album is arranged in such a way as to never allow the listener to gain a position of power. It will be agreed—probably near unanimously—that Nepenthe is good, and more than that, significant. But what no one will tell you, what it seems better ignore, is that while you’ll find meaning and enjoyment in Nepenthe, it will leave you feeling just barely removed. The beauty of Nepenthe is this: You can love it—and you will—but its significance to you will always be just out of your reach.