On her latest record, Julianna Barwick signposts the central idea at play right there in its title. Ambient music is often appreciated for its soothing, restorative tendencies — attributes which are undeniably imbued within the Louisiana-born composer’s particular brand of vocal-centric, loop-based soundscaping. With Healing Is a Miracle, the natural, passive process of bodily repair is set deep in the bones of the sounds that Barwick assembles. It’s a blissed-out, generous musical offering that rewards listeners willing to sink deep and submit to its gentle ebb and flow.
Meditative principles sit at the heart of Barwick’s compositions, which tend to slowly unfurl while circulating repeated elements. What gives depth to her work’s apparent simplicity is the willingness to sit in those recurring motifs and allow them to expand around a central idea. On opening track “Inspirit,” it’s a mantra-like lyric that goes round and round — “Open your heart / It’s in your head” — as layers of Barwick’s light, angelic vocal build over a rising synth-bass rumble. The progression is gradual but satisfyingly accumulative.
Reflecting on a Barwick album, or indeed any number of ambient works, is tricky on a track-by-track basis. On the surface, there is generally little variation or range as the appeal of the form is its propensity to create massive spaces in the mind of a listener using a deliberately limited set of tools. Healing Is a Miracle returns again and again to Barwick’s voice, her favourite and most effective instrument — drenched in reverb, layered into expansive, choral arrangements that incrementally become more complex. Where Barwick’s previous work has only occasionally embellished this focus with strings, pianos and other acoustic accompaniments, this album sees her increasingly turning to electronic instrumentation to reinforce her voice. A track like “Safe” is an effective example, opening with pure voice as two wordless, formless melodies push softly against one another. When the track’s instrumental swell kicks in at its apex, it’s a euphoric release. In that vein, the competing, incantation-like chants and high-pitched wails of “Flowers” are underpinned by a buzzy, aggressive electronic beat which renders it by far the darkest track on the album, while the pure ambience of “Wishing Well” and its lush, long vocal notes ends on a triumphant synth-string hum.
Barwick’s work is often characterised by her willingness to allow for unexpected turns and to improvise around them, surrendering to external forces that cannot be predicted. With this has come acclaim and appreciation from her peers that she has channelled into a collaborative spirit, demonstrated on this album in the distinct personalities that impress themselves on the three tracks featuring guest musicians. Harpist Mary Lattimore appears on the edges of “Oh, Memory,” with dual melodies from her signature instrument trickling down the sides of Barwick’s mass of spiralling voices and the spare piano whisper that gives the track its backbone. Sigur Rós singer Jónsi Birgisson adds a human yearning on standout track “In Light” where he duets with Barwick over pulsating electronics and snatched synthesised gasps. It’s a gorgeous centrepiece for the album, articulating that core theme of renewal and revival in its images of sunrises and new dawns, before its cranking, motivated climax dissolves into the tranquil sounds of a stream. Electronic producer Nosaj Thing helps bring the album to a close on “Nod,”the most overtly synth and beat-based offering on the record, as his programming and augmentation seems to duet with Barwick’s vocal over a structured, steady beat that builds to an ecstatic apex before falling away. It puts that signature voice back at the centre of the work in its final moments.
It’s a clear sign of Barwick’s alert and curious mindset that these three tracks, all more distinctly song-like and individual than much else she has previously put out, are still to the benefit of Healing Is a Miracle as a greater whole. Her decision to offer these more clearly structured and accessible tracks alongside her typical improv-heavy, wilful meanderings shows a comfort and confidence in her prevailing sound. Barwick isn’t lost among the collaborations, but rather they make her uniqueness as an artist all the more prevalent. Those ambient properties of spaciousness and restoration are channelled through more pop sensibilities without losing their integrity.
While healing is often a process that happens naturally — cuts and bruises fading in time — there is also an active element to it and this certainly punctuates Barwick’s latest release. Moving to Los Angeles at the start of the year after living in New York for nearly two decades, she finds herself actively attempting to reassert her sense of place and self — a process rendered all the more foreboding and complicated by an encroaching pandemic. Physical healing tends to operate independently of one’s own will, but psychological healing requires much more effort and attention. Given the nature of Barwick’s music, she is not offering clear answers to her listeners on Healing Is a Miracle, only space and time. Whether it’s in the clear sense of forward direction on more structured tracks like “In Light” or in allowing for transcendent moments of contemplation on a piece such as the album’s title track, what Barwick presents is somewhere that people can retreat to so as to look inward and find peace. Ultimately, Healing Is a Miracle represents an opportunity for pause, stillness and reflection. It’s palpable in the album’s sound that Barwick is on this journey herself, and what she offers is a gentle guiding hand to help her listeners start healing themselves and return to the light, too.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.