Julianna Barwick Nepenthe

[Dead Oceans; 2013]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: hospitable
Others: Jónsi & Alex, Amiina, not Grouper

Some scattered thoughts in a time of loss

01. Creatio ex nihilo or creatio ex profundis? However things come to be, they always come by way of a loss. Simone Weil was right, at least, to argue that creation is kenosis, an emptying of the self. A space, once vacated, is filled with what came from — but is no longer a part of — you. And then: the creator has left their space-filling thing to wander about, be seen and gossiped about, and be recreated — even destroyed. The thing, all the while, escapes from the hole that is left behind.

02. This is the beginning of philosophy: why is there something rather than nothing at all? Or, in the end, why were something and nothing so similar, so intertwined? Only in theory are these easy questions to ask.

03. Every created thing is called forth from oblivion. This isn’t a little thought game of mine. I’ve always found that if you follow the trail back, far enough, you find the missing person, the empty room, the broken heart. Like I said, we make things to fill emptied space — even pithy reviews*.

04. This is also why any nepenthe“a medicine for sorrow” — becomes so tempting for us: to let ourselves fill and forget, yes, in the absence, the question that was ever asked, and why.

05. Which raises the obvious question: whose Nepenthe is this?

06. I love that this album was so clearly born from dislocation and solitude. I appreciate its risky (but perfectly appropriate) collaborations. Above all, I’m saddened that this album is — at least in part — a work of mourning. I have no doubt that this album is significant to Julianna Barwick, and perhaps (from what I’ve read) more so than the others. Indeed, insofar as these opinions are even important, it’s her best work to date, and easily one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.

07. But Nepenthe doesn’t make me concerned about biography, or even production, and least of all ratings. There are glimpses into Barwick that I want to work with, but they say more than I already could. For example, from her recent interview with Pitchfork: “When I was a kid, I would constantly make songs up, just like [wordless coos], where I would sing to myself and get so lost in it that I would cry.” Because even this draws me away from Barwick toward something larger: when do we ever sing differently?

*My little asterisk above can’t help but speak up, now, in the middle of things. I’m beginning to process the news of someone’s death as I write this. I’d like to believe that that would somehow open up this music — made under similar circumstances — to me. I’d like to believe that it would make this music a drinkable thing, my own private nepenthe. I listen for the taste.

08. But intoxication is a lie; forgetting, unfortunately, is something only earned in time.

09. From David Levi-Strauss: “As with all other parts of the allopathic complex, the anesthetic only masks symptoms; it does nothing to treat the root causes of pain, to trace it back to its source, give it meaning, or counter it with pleasure. This requires the older, more radical practice of aesthetics.”

10. I think about art a lot and how it works. Yes, I probably overestimate the value/scope of my task every time I start thinking through an album. The last “reviews” I’ve written have all been about settling into my own silence, like some sort of negative aesthetic — wandering off into opened, inarticulate space. Because, in short, I’m writing to shut myself up. It might seem somewhat “pretentious” on the surface (I’m not unaware). But it’s easy to chase an album down its dead ends (all of us who write music journalism do it), and it’s hard to simply sit with a piece of music, in the noise/quiet of a life, and live into its possible significance. And all I really want to do anymore is shut up and pay attention to that mystery and where it might take me.

10.5. It’s funny to think that the “review,” then, is what you’ll never actually read.

11. Earlier this year, I wrote about Grouper. In my little piece, I unfairly criticized Julianna Barwick for “not going deep enough,” as if I had the authority to even make a claim like that. Now it seems preposterous, of course. Now, as I listen and re-listen to Nepenthe, all I hear are reverberations rising from holes of oblivion, creation from the dark, new life. This is a profound and giving music, and one I will carry forward into whatever silence and healing and forgetting I’m about to endure. My gratitude for it extends far beyond whatever I’ve done here.

Links: Julianna Barwick - Dead Oceans

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