The Magic Place
(Asthmatic Kitty; 2011)
By Andrew Hall | 27 February 2011
In strange ways, the last several years have been good to the long-term standing of New Age as a genre. Over a decade removed from the ubiquitous commercials for the Pure Moods compilation, artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds have dirtied up and dissected its space-age synthesizers, countless bands have dabbled in David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti worship in some form or another, Riceboy Sleeps (2009) happened, and Das Racist murdered “Return to Innocence” by shouting its nauseatingly unforgettable vocal melody off-key. Just like countless others have since that commercial began to infect basic cable ad blocks in 1996.
Julianna Barwick’s first full-length, The Magic Place, sees the Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-based composer take what could be called New Age vocal stylings and place them within the context of considerably less pompous and melodramatic arrangements. Were Cocteau Twins not sometimes described as New Age, it would be just as apt to say she were borrowing from Elizabeth Fraser’s tendency towards high notes and glossolalia. Whereas Enya or Enigma’s vocal music was often built on overt, immediate mantras, here Barwick largely chooses to do away with words. She collages her voice and a handful of instruments—each in supporting roles—into songs that see her take an already distinct style and render it completely and utterly hers, using loops and a ton of reverb to chisel sketches as varied as they are open to interpretation.
It’s easy to be reduced to simple statements about music like this, music without clearly defined reference points like lyrics or easily-discerned song structures, to say little other than that the finished product is gorgeous. However, doing so would be a disservice to The Magic Place, since its attention to detail and its unconventional mixing are both worthy of praise. Opener “Envelop” does exactly what its title frames it as doing: it establishes Barwick’s voice as the album’s focal point, then demonstrates how her looping technique, in its deliberate imprecision, allows melodies to blur together. Whatever other instrumentation exists is hidden within the mix to be parsed through close listening, unpredictable and often thrilling—like on “Keep Up the Good Work,” where a pulse-like beat and a bass line emerge opposite one of the few almost intelligible melodies Barwick presents. It’s a hypnotic technique, but it gets at one of her key strengths: this is music that borders on ambience, but works just as well when actively engaged with.
As the album progresses, its sequencing proves key, as its second half differs the songs’ textures just enough to break up any potential monotony. Barwick adds immediately intelligible but sparingly employed piano, synthesizer, guitar, bass, and even percussion. Each serve to anchor what could have become a wash of gorgeous but similar-sounding vocal melodies; instead, moments like the Grouper-esque guitar loop that begins “Bob in Your Hair” or the sound of a marching band exploding out of the center of “Prizewinning” turn into minor revelations, immediately recognizable and captivating.
In addition to her already-established unconventional approaches to singing and composing, Barwick proves on The Magic Place that her music has far more life in it than one might have initially expected after hearing either Sanguine (2007) or Florine (2009). By shifting her approach ever so slightly, she’s crafted an album that doesn’t exhaust like it could have, but instead sustains and develops a sense of mood and atmosphere to great effect. It makes for a remarkable debut full-length—just don’t expect to see any of it scoring some slow-motion spinning or pastel unicorns when those Pure Moods commercials make their inevitable comeback.