The first time I heard Brooklyn ambient vocalist Julianna Barwick was during Radiohead’s “Reckoner” Internet remix experiment, in which fans could rework the moody In Rainbows track and post the results online, all so they could be subjected to a rather pointless voting free-for-all. Lost in the shuffle was a particularly haunting rendition in which, in what was to become a Barwick trademark, everything but the barest of instrumental sound was stripped away in favor of cavernous, slowly building vocal harmonies; Barwick had essentially turned “Reckoner” into a naked, poignant a cappella duet with Thom Yorke.
That minimalist method has been expanded on her first major-label release, The Magic Place, in which trickling piano, scarce percussion, and loop upon loop of lush, choir-like chanting are thrown together into a graceful, voice-driven miasma. As a statement of who Barwick is behind the fog, The Magic Place is obtuse and largely unhelpful; as an exploration of the capacity for dense, formless mood music, it’s a near-masterpiece.
The album is aided immeasurably by Barwick’s ability to sustain its rich aura while avoiding self-indulgence. At only nine tracks long, The Magic Place achieves a remarkable amount of layering, tone, and imagery in a short period, particularly when considering that most tracks rarely stray beyond a three- or four-minute running time. Barwick accomplishes a lot with very little, and particularly, in very little time, but without rushing the purposeful gait of her caroling melodies. “Vow,” which, like many of the album’s other tracks, is literally a scattering of notes repeated infinitely into a reverberating fadeout, builds up its circular, melodious mystique long before the one-minute mark. Most tracks fade into their harmonious, alien refrains from complete silence and then easily disappear, evaporating into a mist of echoes and lending the album a ghostly, beguiling calm.
Still, for all its phantasmal beauty and technical excellence, The Magic Place excels at little else than being arcanely gorgeous. Minimalist, voice-driven music often excels by allowing listeners to savor a certain amount of intimacy with its creator, but Barwick is just as estranged and remote in the concluding “Flown” as she is when we first hear her in the soothing “Envelop.” Seemingly content to remain enigmatic, she’s essentially a nonentity throughout, her voice no more than a vessel for the album’s esoteric imagery. In the end, The Magic Place is a beautiful, ambiguous diversion better suited as a companion soundtrack to some experimental film or art installation than as the debut for a promising young singer.