If your typical indie-rock fan makes room for one ambient album this year, there’s a near 100 percent chance it’s going to be Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe. So how did Barwick manage to fill this niche? Since 2009′s introductory Florine EP, initially released on eMusic Selects, she’s tinkered with the tools of countless bedroom artists — looping pedals, lots of reverb, distortion — to create wordless, secular spirituals that sound ancient and timeless, as opposed to being sourced from a choirgirl past. It’s churchly, but not church music, bearing the qualities of ambient without totally spilling over into New Age. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s a young Louisiana native who performs live and does interviews. It’s emotive music that makes itself open to interpretation, but with a knowable source.
There’s no peer for what Barwick does, but there is precedent — namely the beautiful and unnerving ghost songs of Sigur Ros’s (). Nepenthe, her second LP on Secretly Canadian, makes that connection all the more clear: While 2011′s The Magic Place always sounded handcrafted and fragile, Nepenthe is relatively big-budget, recorded in Reykjavik with Jonsi collaborator Alex Somers. The format of Barwick’s music hasn’t changed; she’s still transmogrifying herself into waves of pure gauze five or so minutes at a time. But here, she avails herself of Iceland’s amenities — string ensemble Amiina, members of múm, a teenaged choir and reverb that makes Nepenthe sound vast enough to fill any space it’s put into. Still, the changes to her sound are incremental — “One Half” borders on intelligibility, the first time you can make out distinct words rather than syllabic chanting; “Crystal Lake” incorporates sonar pings; and the found sound lacing “The Harbinger” gives you the impression it was recorded on location at an ice floe. It’s not pop music, but it’s not difficult; you couldn’t call it “easy listening either.” In its own way, the category-dodging Nepenthe follows the rules of a typical rock follow-up: It’s a deeper, darker and more accomplished version of its predecessor.