The Magic Place
“The Magic Place was a tree on our farm,” says Louisiana-raised Brooklynite Julianna Barwick. “It was in the back pasture. It was one tree that grew up, down and around. You had to crawl in and once you were inside, it was like there were different rooms, and you could actually lay in the branches. We named it ‘The Magic Place’ because it really was magical—especially for a kid… and that’s how I feel about my life right now—without trying to sound too hippy dippy or cosmic, this year has definitely been a magical one.”
And so goes Julianna’s Asthmatic Kitty Records debut, The Magic Place, a nine-piece full-length album of magic and solace, bursting joy and healing tones. Julianna’s mostly-a-capella music is built from her voice multi-tracked through a loop station. There’s more backing instrumentation on this one than on previous albums but it’s the vocals—soaring high in reverb-drenched, wordless harmonies—that matter most here. It’s the layered fragments and pieces that become an intricate pattern through technology; it’s the sound of a rising thing, a big group harmony as a splash of sunlight through a car window, a sound that feels like hope and ascendance and patience and intimacy. (Pitchfork called her 2009 self-release, Florine, “bracingly intimate” as well as a runner-up for “album of the year,” giving it a glowing rating of 8.2. Her 2007 debut, Sanguine, is more of the same. Her sound, it appears, was born fully realized.)
The Magic Place begins with “Envelop,” (which, incidentally, is a perfect one-word description of Julianna’s aesthetic.) “Envelop” is Julianna’s voice and a warm drone of synth and it builds into a great crystalline tower of fragile sound as more Juliannas join the first Julianna in a triumphant super-choir. Her inspiration here is the a capella church hymns she grew up singing; the way a roomful of diverse voices can join together to fill up a space. Says Julianna about her church singin’ days, “You could really hear all the layers, harmonies, rounds, the men and the women, the claps… everything. Some of those hymns are so beautiful.” And “hymn” is an operative word here—these are like ecstatic church hymns building in power as more voices join the congregation, rising to the rafters, progressing with extreme patience, based on a slow, almost glacial pace that leads to something bigger than itself. These are patient songs and in the patience comes the record’s most sublime and captivating moments.
“Envelop” ends with a hypnotic piano line that echoes out like some kind of beautiful, strange, lonely bird call; the sound of a loon on a dusky marsh, the reddening sky sprawled wide on the horizon, the low wetlands all around. “Keep Up the Good Work” is next, Julianna’s multi-tracked voices joining together like some kind of an alien space aria in front of an audience of stoked E.T.s. Like Sigur Rós’s ethereal glossolalia, there’s a very particular joy in listening to Julianna’s music. Free of the constraints of narrative and traceable language, it’s the same joy in giving yourself over to opera in a foreign language, of letting go of your pesky rational mind and allowing the feeling to come through in the voices and performance. The title track is next, a reverb-y beauty queen that soars to Promethean heights and builds its own kind of safe haven in the clouds, a thing made of pewter and glass, of ice and gold straw. Toward the end, all the weaving, prismatic, accompanying voices drop out and it’s Julianna alone on an undercurrent of reverb. Her voice has never sounded better.
As “Cloak” leads us into the record’s middle section an aesthetic is established—a firmly rooted and realized idea, the vocals and post-minimalist instrumentation making a thing that feels entirely hers, each part important to the whole. Even the gaps between songs are essential to the album’s listening experience—a sigh between stories or silence-as-drone, each second important. (The New York Times called the pauses between Julianna’s songs, “the small pleasure of a chance to breathe between the greater pleasures of not wanting to have to.” They also called Julianna “the new Enya,” which makes sense on a surface level, but there is no irony, cheesiness or retro ’80s-ness here. If it’s new age, it’s a new new age. Easier touchstones are Panda Bear’s more blissful, ozone-reaching moments on Person Pitch, the occasional Phillip Glass gem, the gorgeous back-end tracks off Jana Hunter’s debut, and Brian Eno’s magnificent Music for Films.)
“White Flag” is next, a songtitle that hints at surrender, but according to Julianna it’s not the surrender before defeat, it’s the surrender to a new love. “What’s funny is that song has been around for a long time, but it felt perfect with my current life stuff. It has been amazing.” After “White Flag,” “Vow” takes you gently toward the album’s resolution. By the time the bass notes comes on there’s a rhythmic foundation that gives the sparse music and vocals a kind of subtle epicness that never flaunts itself. (It’s epic because of the fullness of each adjoining component. It doesn’t boast or brag; it operates under a strict code of grace and restraint.) “Bob in Your Gait” opens with an echoing, muted guitar which is then joined by a beautiful sun-dappled piano line. And that’s the tricky thing about this music: You know there’s a lot going on with the vocals from the first listen but it’s the backing music that ends up surprising you. Give The Magic Place a couple spins and it will begin to reveal itself and you’ll see just how much is going on inside (what is for all intents and purposes) a primarily vocal-based composition. It’s like stumbling upon buried treasure on the most beautiful beach you ever visited. You find it and you’re like, “Well, I’m just here for the sun and sand, but, nice! Bonus!”
Up next “Prizewinning” begins with a looping bassline. And then the willowy wisps of vocals come on, subtle at first, drifting in spirals until they’re full-voiced. By the time the drums kick in at three and a half minutes we’re as close as Julianna comes to full-band, and the result is celebratory, rumbling with life, and hauntingly engaging. Says Julianna, “I was [recording] in a new recording space in Brooklyn, and there were lots of fun things to play with that I don’t have myself, so it definitely opened up some creative opportunities to me. The song sort of had that triumphant feeling, and I could hear that it was leading up to something, so I played around with the high hat and snare, and it kind of worked out perfectly. (That’s pretty much the way everything happens with my stuff, no real plan ever, just playing and it kind of happens magically). After I put the drum-y stuff in there it felt almost like a marching band, a happy, elated marching band, and I’ve been feeling that feeling lately.”
The final track, “Flown,” is a song Julianna wrote for her best friend’s sister who passed away last year. Says Julianna, “At her funeral service the woman who gave a talk had a story about geese and flying, and I remember that really touched my friend.” “Flown” is a quiet, elegant way to end this record, a kind of final glide across the floor after the ballet’s resolution. It’s an ending scene but it’s also a beginning—allow the album to cycle back to the first track and you’ll see this is just a great glass ring spinning in the void, two arms joined in embrace, a homespun mantra and—in the end, and at the beginning—a circular journey.