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Drumming Upstream 38: "Look Into Your Own Mind" by Julianna Barwick
Pleasant Enough is No Longer Enough
Welcome to Drumming Upstream! I’m learning how to play every song I’ve ever Liked on Spotify on drums and writing about each song as I go. When I’ve learned them all I will delete my Spotify account in a blaze of glory. Only 441 songs to go!
This week I stepped away from the kit to consider “Look Into Your Own Mind” by singer and ambient composer Julianna Barwick. What did I discover when I followed the song’s instructions? Find out below!
“Look Into Your Own Mind”
By Julianna Barwick
Released on August 20th, 2013
Liked on March 11th, 2016
We last saw Louisiana born singer and ambient composer Julianna Barwick in the early days of the summer of 2022 when I wrote about her song “One Half”, off of her 2013 album Nepenthe (see DU#11). The subject of today’s letter, “Look Into Your Own Mind” could not be a more appropriate follow up to that entry. Not only is “Look Into Your Own Mind” from the same album as “One Half”, it is in fact the very next track literally picking up where “One Half” trailed off. Placed this way on Nepenthe’s track order, “Look Into Your Own Mind” is something of a come down after the emotional fireworks of “One Half”. The track has even less to grab on to than its predecessor. Barwick gives us no words to contemplate, hardly even a melody to sing, and, like “One Half”, no drums to learn. Luckily the song’s title doubles as an instruction.
One benefit of writing about two songs from the same album is that I still have all of my old research, so before taking Barwick’s advice and gazing inward I decided to take one last glance outward at my old notes. One quote from an interview with The Skinny jumped out to me. “My favorite musical combination is sad and pretty.” Barwick said in 2013, “But I guess it doesn’t always have to be sad, it can just be pretty.” When I’d read this line while researching “One Half” I hadn’t made much of it, but this time around my brain couldn’t stop chewing on Barwick’s clarification. “It doesn’t always have to be sad” could have just been a statement of preference for using both major and minor keys at the time, but a decade later it felt like a personal challenge. Why is it that I have only been able to read sadness in “Look Into Your Own Mind”? What is holding me back from accepting it as just pretty?
Two explanations come to mind immediately. The first is simply that I have done my research. As I explained when I wrote about “One Half”, the Nepenthe sessions were interrupted by a death in Barwick’s family. Though it would be a stretch to say that Nepenthe is about Barwick working through that grief, this biographical context can’t help but color the way I hear the album. I can’t picture Barwick in Iceland recording her voice in an empty swimming pool without acknowledging the possibility of what was going through her mind. The second explanation is that November 2023 is a very different time of year than June 2022. Barwick’s ephemeral touch reads differently when scoring the muted grey of a sunless November weekend than it does sunlight bouncing off of green leaves. These increasingly darker hours do not make my mind the most pleasant place to look into, which colors how I hear music. I need not elaborate on how these two theories resonate with each other.
However, when I dig past these two explanations for my ear’s melancholy I find a more complex variety of sadness. I felt the same bespoke bummer wash over me back in September during a dinner with a friend who had just worked at a Julianna Barwick show the night before. Over an overstuffed torta my friend relayed his conversation with the security guard at the gig who asked him “so she’s just making the music?” as Barwick built her loops from scratch and concluded “she’s an angel” at the end of her set. I chuckled along with my friend in between bites of my burrito, but inside I felt a pang. As I sunk my teeth into the dense heft of my dinner I knew that I would have to write about “Look Into Your Own Mind” before the year was done. Not only did my friend’s torta look like a way better choice than my burrito, but the security guard’s perspective on Barwick was far preferable to my own early thoughts on the song.
What I realized then in that Taqueria is that I could no longer hear “Look Into Your Own Mind” the way that I first heard it in 2013, or even the way I heard it in 2016 when I Liked it on Spotify. I had a freshly open heart to ambient music in 2013. I was at that point in my life just getting the hang of being chill about stuff as a concept, and learning how to love music that didn’t demand complete investment from the listener was part of that process. I was also not unrelatedly just starting to appreciate music that was, in Barwick’s words, “just pretty”. Nepenthe fit right in with my parallel interest in chillwave (see DU#9), folk (see DU#8), shoegaze (see DU#29), and even in my taste in metal in those years (see DU#16). When I see the red of Nepenthe’s cover I can’t help be see the echo of Deafheaven’s Sunbather1. In this light I found Barwick’s music moving beyond words. Listening to Nepenthe and accepting it as beautiful gave me the relief of letting the weight of snobbery I’d shouldered for years fall away.
In 2016 I had a more utilitarian relationship with “Look Into Your Own Mind”. As you may recall, 2016 was STRESSFUL. I Liked the track long before the year reached its dizzying climax but I don’t doubt that I Liked it because I found it soothing. And to be certain it is a satisfying piece of music. A piano reduction wouldn’t capture the gorgeous texture of the strings and Barwick’s harmonies, but the track isn’t built on air. In the last entry I wrote about how “Mercy.1” used a downward resolution to sound menacing and imposing (see DU#37). “Look Into Your Own Mind” on the other hand uses a downward resolution to feel like earth’s largest and fuzziest electric blanket. The more layers that Barwick adds, both to the gently descending bass line and the formless cluster up top, the thicker that blanket wraps around you until the song drifts off into contended silence.
The problem with using music as a sedative is that the dosage eventually wears off. In her 2013 review of Nepenthe for Pitchfork Lindsay Zoladz described Julianna Barwick’s music as “the aural equivalent of an airplane ride through a cloud”. These days I hear more of the airplane than the clouds. Although I still enjoy the track as part of the flow of Nepenthe, when I listen to the song by itself the music is crowded out by the structures that serve it to me. I’ve written before about how crucial ambient music has been to Spotify’s relaxation-oriented playlists (see DU#12) and nothing in “Look Into Your Own Mind” complicates that proximity to corporate strategy. It didn’t surprise me in 2021 that Barwick got lumped into the Samuel McLemore’s airing of ambient grievances in Tone Glow. The social context for music that aims to sooth, relax, and placate its listener is vastly different after a decade of digital streaming platforms leveraging those sensations toward ever-increasing audience capture. An airline would be so lucky to have music as well composed as Barwick’s playing before take-off, but they’d still charge you an arm for legroom.
When I look into my mind to see how I feel about “Look Into Your Own Mind” I see a lot of clutter and debris. It takes work and time for me to move this junk away and give the song an honest look without my self-imposed sadness. Once I have a clear line of sight I can acknowledge that yes, it is quite pretty. But is it pretty enough to justify the intellectual effort? Find out below on the Drumming Upstream Leaderboard.
Assessing a piece with as light a touch as “Look Into Your Own Mind” is surprisingly complicated. How exactly do you weigh its merits against heavy metal and hip-hop, or even other ambient music with stronger forces of personality. Luckily, again, I have another Barwick composition to compare it to. “Look Into Your Own Mind” does not stand up well against “One Half”. The latter, while just as difficult to pin down and just as calibrated toward passive listening, is a much more involved composition with appropriately richer rewards. Nothing on this track reaches the same height as the experience of hearing Barwick and her choir reach their full three part counterpoint, and nothing provokes as much thought as the sentence fragments of Barwick’s lyrics. This caps “Look Into Your Own Mind” at 29th at best, and I’m happy to let it drift a few spots further down to 33rd for now. It’s pleasant enough, but pleasant is no longer enough for me.
The Current Top Ten
Thank you for reading. Last year I ended the first season of Drumming Upstream by talking about death. This year, I’d like to talk about love. In the Season 2 Finale of Drumming Upstream I’ll return to the drum set for a song by Mitski. Until then, have a great week!
Deafheaven will appear in Drumming Upstream eventually.